Rambam, Octavia Butler, and Atonement

Aaron Levy Samuels wrote “Letter from Octavia Butler to Rabbi Moses Maimonides” in his book, Yarmulkes & Fitted Caps. (Austin, 2013). Visit his website. For this high holiday season, I added some texts from Octavia Butler and Maimonides here to support some of my favorite passages.

Aaron Levy Samuels also shares these additional resources for the high holidays here (Not Free to Desist site).

Climbing Toward Repair 5781

Yesterday was the pits. In the Jewish calendar, Tisha B’av [the 9th day of the 11th month; July 29-30 in 2020] is the lowest point of “the Three Weeks” of progressively deeper mourning and reading of prophetic chastisements. Today, we begin the slow climb up, through the seven weeks of comfort and Elul’s wake-up calls, toward the new year. Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the new year, 5781, coincides with Sep 18-20, 2020 in the Gregorian calendar.

The prophetic reading from last week — known as the “Sabbath of Vision” — warns us to take heed NOW in our preparations for the coming holiday season:

Your new moons and fixed seasons
Fill Me with loathing; [this is God speaking]
They are become a burden to Me,
And when you lift up your hands,
I will turn My eyes away from you;
Though you pray at length, I will not listen.
Your hands are stained with crime
I cannot endure them.
Wash you, make you clean,
put away the evil of your doings from before My eyes,
cease to do evil; learn to do well;
seek justice, relieve the oppressed,
judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.
“Come, let us reach an understanding, —says the LORD.
Be your sins like crimson, They can turn snow-white;
Be they red as dyed wool, They can become like fleece.”
– Isaiah 1:14-18

It won’t be enough to mark the high holidays, recite the proper words, hear the shofar [ram’s horn], and skip some meals. None of that, by itself, will create change, for us or for the wider world. So, now is the time to reflect and prepare, to move from the mournful “How?!” of Lamentations, read on Tisha B’av, to the “how?” of individual and collective action to repair our relationships and the world around us.

For white Jews in particular, now is the time — we have seven weeks beginning today — to redouble our efforts to face our history, our role in systems that uphold white supremacy, and the work ahead of us in dismantling those systems.

For each of the weeks and days ahead, let’s commit to learning and building toward #Repair5781.

Visit Repair5781 Page for some resources.

The Well of Sight, Seeing, Seen

Ishmael, Isaac, and a Reunion of Cousins” raised questions about what it means for Isaac to settle at Beer Lahai Roi, the wellspring that is already home to Ishmael, after the brothers have buried their father, Abraham. The Shalom Center proposes bringing this story (Gen 25:7-11) into the Days of Awe to suggest “turning and healing” of the painful Torah passages read at Rosh Hashanah. And in the context of the high holidays, the wellspring’s history seems particularly powerful.

On the run from ill-treatment by Sarah, Hagar has a divine encounter in the wilderness. An angel finds her at a wellspring on the road and demands: Where have you come from and where are you going? (Gen 16:8). An essential question for individuals at the season of repentance and return. Also key for “renewing the cousinship” of Blacks and Jews, another relationship in need of “turning and healing.”

At the conclusion of Hagar’s wilderness encounter, we read:

וַתִּקְרָא שֵׁם-יְהוָה הַדֹּבֵר אֵלֶיהָ, אַתָּה אֵל רֳאִי: כִּי אָמְרָה, הֲגַם הֲלֹם רָאִיתִי–אַחֲרֵי רֹאִי
עַל-כֵּן קָרָא לַבְּאֵר, בְּאֵר לַחַי רֹאִי–הִנֵּה בֵין-קָדֵשׁ, וּבֵין בָּרֶד
And she called the LORD who spoke to her, “You Are El-roi,” by which she meant, “Have I not gone on seeing after God saw me!”
Therefore the well was called Beer-lahai-roi; it is between Kadesh and Bered.—
— Gen 16:13-14

In her 1984 Texts of Terror, Phyllis Trible pointed out extraordinary aspects of this story, including the fact that Hagar names God — the only biblical character to do so (more here). And the name she uses has a lot to tell us.

El-roi” is translated in a variety of ways and sometimes, as in the 1985 JPS (above), not translated. But all the renderings revolve around sight: God of vision, God of my seeing, God who sees me. This, I think, points to one meaning of Isaac moving to this place: Reconciliation in unlikely if estranged parties cannot see and feel seen, so the brothers both settling in a place of seeing bodes well.

“Renewing the cousinship” of Blacks and Jews requires a lot of seeing. Coming to a place with a powerful history of seeing by/of oppressed and traumatized people could be a great beginning.

SeesMe_graphic

Police Brutality Memorial Prayers

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The following prayer, prepared by Virginia Spatz and Rabbi Gerry Serotta, was offered for use during the Yizkor (Memorial) service Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, 5777 at Fabrangen Havurah. It is based on the yizkor prayers of several different Jewish traditions, relying strongly on the notion that acts of tzedakah [righteousness, sometimes translated as “charity”] perpetuate the names — “bind up in the bonds of life” — of the deceased. (jump to PDF version)

For Yizkor:

Consider this reflection for those in our neighborhoods lost to state violence in 5776

yizkorpolicebrutality As we endeavor to return to the Eternal One in these Days of Awe — and into the new year — we carry with us connections to those killed by violence perpetrated in our name in our own country. Among iniquities for which we beg forgiveness is failure to stop police killings, disproportionately affecting the black- and brown-skinned among us, or to address the underlying systemic racism. In this season of return, we ask God to accept our pledges of renewed examination of state power, including militarization of police, and of renewed commitment to human rights for all.

In this Memorial Service, we recall three unarmed black men killed by police in the District last year, along with six other black citizens, and no one of another skin color, killed by police in DC during 5776:

  • James McBride, 74, Sep 29, 2015.
    Unarmed, leaving hospital without signing out. Killed by MedStar Special Police. Death ruled homicide.
  • Alonzo Smith, 27, Nov 1, 2015.
    Unarmed, unexplained circumstances. Killed by Blackout Special Police. Death ruled homicide.
  • Terrence Sterling, 31, Sep 11, 2016.
    Unarmed, shot contrary to protocol/orders. Killed by Metropolitan Police Dept. Death ruled homicide.
  • Marquesha McMillan, 21, Oct 26, 2015.
    Armed with a gun. Killed by Metropolitan Police Department.
  • James Covington, 62, Nov 2, 2015.
    Armed with a gun. Killed by Metropolitan Police Department.
  • Darick Napper, 34, Nov 19, 2015.
    Armed with a knife. Killed by Metropolitan Police Department.
  • Peter John, 36, Feb 1, 2016.
    Armed with a toy gun. Killed by Metropolitan Police Department.
  • Sherman Evans, 63, June 27, 2016.
    Armed with a toy gun. Killed by Metropolitan Police Department.
  • Sidney Washington, Jr., 21, July 4, 2016.
    Part of a July Fourth crowd shooting off fireworks and firearms. Killed by Metro Transit (Special) Police.

O God, full of mercy, Justice of the bereaved and Parent of orphans , take special notice of those lost to state killings in our own country. Master of compassion, shelter under the shadow of Your wings those whose lives ended in violence, often fueled by racial injustice. Grant proper rest for the souls of all who went to their eternal rest through such killings.

May these moments of meditation strengthen the ties linking this community with our most vulnerable and troubled members. I pledge tzedakah/charity to address racial injustices contributing to these deaths. Through such deeds, and through prayer and remembrance, may the souls of the departed be bound up in the bond of life. May they rest in peace forever.

Here is a printable PDF with DC losses included [yizkorreflection5777]
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To open, moving “days between”

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In her The Days Between, Marcia Falk writes of the “We cast into the depths” declaration of Tashlikh, the Rosh Hashana afternoon ritual of symbolic sin/crumb/twig tossing: “We seek in this declaration to free ourselves from whatever impedes our moving into the new year with clarity, lightness, and hope.”

In addition, I suggest, we need to look at where we might be responsible for impeding anyone else’s movement, clarity, lightness, or hope — and prepare to open that blockage wherever possible.

Open, moving “days between” to all,
followed by a good, sweet, and flowing 5776

WattsTashlikh

The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, and Directions of the heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season. Marcia Falk. (Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2014)

In Need of New Language

The Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) needs new God-language and is asking for input. Here are two cents, which I hope will be useful to the CCAR and all who happen upon them.

Searching for Reform perspectives on the Amidah, I stumbled upon a “RavBlog” post relating to one of the blessings. Rabbi Leon Morris, a member of the editorial team for the Reform movement’s inchoate machzor, asked: How “Current” Should a Prayer Book Be?

His post raises a number of questions, ones I’m not sure the author intended but ones the CCAR — and the rest of us — would do well to consider.
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Blessings and Distance

R. Joshua b. Levi said: One who sees a friend after a lapse of thirty days says: Blessed is He who has kept us alive and preserved us and brought us to this season.* If after a lapse of twelve months he says: Blessed is He who revives the dead.**
— Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 58b

*Shehecheyanu,” for short [full blessing text]
** Kolel: The Adult Centre for Adult Jewish Learning presents both blessings as outlined in Berakhot 58b and another option for blessing upon seeing a long-lost friend.
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Psalm 27 for the season (4 of 4)

“If you’re not 20 minutes early, you’re late,” my ballet teacher, Marie Paquet, used to tell her adult students: Without time to leave behind the outside world and prepare to focus, warm up physically and mentally, class could be frustrating, even dangerous. Over the years, I’ve realized that her adage also applies to worship services. Still, life and public transportation don’t always support early arrival to services.

But necessity, as I’m sure “they” rarely say, is the mother of invention in kavanah [intention]….

This past Shabbat, Shabbat Sukkot, I entered the sanctuary un-early and a little frazzled. Moreover, this particular service skipped over some introductory prayers that ordinarily help me focus. This left me struggling to follow the service. But, then, in a moment provided for silent prayer, I stopped struggling and simultaneously “heard,” quite clearly:

“On Your behalf, my heart says: ‘Seek My face!'” (Psalms 27:8)

I wish I could say that this verse instantly helped me find my way into the service. But I can say that I my inability to keep up became suddenly irrelevant. Moreover, I stumbled into a three-part message encapsulating the fall holidays. I am hoping it will carry — for me and others, I hope — the essence of the season of teshuva into the mundane, post-holiday world.
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Yet More on Psalm 27 (3 of 4)

The close of Psalm 27 —

קַוֵּה, אֶל-יְהוָה: חֲזַק, וְיַאֲמֵץ לִבֶּךָ; וְקַוֵּה, אֶל-יְהוָה.

Hope in the LORD; strengthen yourself, let your heart take courage, and hope in the Lord [Psalm 27:14]

— is often cited as a motivational aphorism, particularly for the penitential season. This is its role in this meditation for Elul, for example.

Psalms 27:14 is employed in the Babylonian Talmud as a proof-text for appropriate attitude in prayer. The passage includes a discussion on prayer and hope, including — like the question Langston Hughes asks in “Harlem” — what happens to hope deferred.

Psalms 27:14 stands out in that it uses the second person (command) form, while the previous 13 verses are in the first person: “God is My light…whom should I fear?” etc. This raises the question: Whose heart is to hope?
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More Exploring Psalm 27 (2 of 4)

Psalm 27 includes a powerful “single request,” one that is frequently offered as a song:

One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life,
to behold the graciousness of the LORD, and to visit early in His temple.
אַחַת, שָׁאַלְתִּי מֵאֵת-יְהוָה– אוֹתָהּ אֲבַקֵּשׁ:
שִׁבְתִּי בְּבֵית-יְהוָה, כָּל-יְמֵי חַיַּי;
לַחֲזוֹת בְּנֹעַם-יְהוָה, וּלְבַקֵּר בְּהֵיכָלוֹ

— Psalms 27:4, JPS 1917, borrowed from Mechon-Mamre
full translation at Mechon-Mamre; others linked here

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