Say Uncle for the High Holidays

I found the poetry collection, Say Uncle by Kay Ryan, at my local library and thought two of the pieces useful for the season of returning and repentance:

“Failure 2”
There could be nutrients
in failure–
deep amendments
to the shallow soil
of wishes.
Think of the
dark and bitter
flavors of
black ales
and peasant loaves.
Think of licorices.
Think about
the tales of how
Indians put fishes
under corn plants.
Next time hope
relinquishes a form,
think about that.
— p.69

“Don’t look back”
This is not
a problem
for the neckless.
Fish cannot
recklessly
swivel their heads
to check
on their fry;
no one expects
this. They are
torpedoes of
disinterest,
compact capsules
that rely
on the odds
for survival,
unfollowed by
the exact and modest
number of goslings
the S-necked goose is –
who if she
looks back
acknowledges losses
and if she does not
also loses.
— pp. 32-33
Say Uncle. NY: Grove Press, 1991

Also of possible interest, as we prepare to begin anew in head the book of Genesis, “A Certain Kind of Eden.”

Here is general information about the poet and the Library of Congress resource page. The latter includes a video farewell reading program, from the conclusion of Kay Ryan’s term as poet laureate.

Finally, just because it tickled me — A previous reader of the library volume I borrowed had circled three phrases in red. Together they form a sort of meta-poem or mangled haiku:

elfin tailor

weakness and doubt
are symbionts

that’s water under
the bridge, we say

Maybe there’s a message for the new year in this odd mash-up of Kay Ryan lines.

May we all be inscribed for a good and sweet year to come.

Ishmael, Isaac, and a Reunion of Cousins

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What can the story of Ishmael and Isaac, especially its conclusion in Genesis 25:7ff, tell us “about renewing the cousinship of Blacks and Jews — and of people who live in both communities — when white nationalists are threatening both”?

The Shalom Center suggests that the Torah reading(s) for Rosh Hashanah, which highlight the endangerment and separation of Ishmael and Isaac, “cry out for turning and healing.” Toward this end, Rabbi Arthur Waskow proposes an additional reading for Yom Kippur: Gen 25:7-11, wherein the two brothers join together to bury their father and “Isaac goes to live at the wellspring that is Ishmael’s home.”

Arthur suggests that reading this tale at the end of the Days of Awe “can remind us as individuals that it is always possible for us to turn away from anger and toward reconciliation.” In addition it can remind us that the descendants of Isaac (Jewish people) and of Ishmael (Islam and Arab peoples) “need to turn toward compassion for each other.” (More on this idea at “5 Offerings for a Deep and Powerful Yom Kippur. The “cousins” paragraph, quoted above, is from a print Shalom Center communication elaborating on this Yom Kippur reading suggestion.)

Renewing Cousinship

Arthur taught at Fabrangen Havurah, probably twenty years ago, on the topic of Ishmael and Isaac jointly burying their father. Since then, I’ve thought many times about this part of the tale and its power to point us either toward reconciliation or toward less helpful paths. I don’t think I ever explored it in terms of “renewing the cousinship” of Black and Jewish communities before, however. And, because this is an on-going and strong concern for me, I plan to pursue this in some detail in the days ahead — for the high holidays and beyond. Our communities are much in need of turning and healing.

I am not yet sure if this is a continuation of last year’s #ExploringBabylon or a new direction. Either way, I hope you will join in, by subscribing if you have not already done so — follow buttons are now at the VERY BOTTOM of posts — and contributing your thoughts.

Life at the Wellspring

“Isaac goes to live at the wellspring that is Ishmael’s home.”

This is what struck me most powerfully in Arthur’s teaching this year. In year’s past, I thought in terms of interfaith understanding, of the wellspring as a fundamental source that Isaac and Ishmael share and a common link to Hagar. Viewing the descendants of Isaac and Ishmael as members of Jewish and Black communities today, however, raised new questions:

  • Beer Lahai Roi is where Ishmael settled after being expelled from the family home. So what does it mean that Isaac is now living there?
    • Is this true brotherly reunion, generally accepted by others in the neighborhood?
    • Or does this look to some like colonization of the exiled brother’s home?
    • Do the brothers fairly share a joint family heritage in the wellspring?
    • Or is Isaac somehow appropriating what had been Ishmael’s?
  •  Beer Lahai Roi is a powerful place of God-connection at times of severe travail for Hagar. So what does it mean that Isaac settled there?
    • Did separate traumas experienced by Isaac and Ishmael lead them, by divine guidance, perhaps, to a joint source of healing?
    • Or did Isaac seek out Ishmael hoping his older brother could guide him?
    • Do the brothers learn from one another?
    • Or do they, with some rare exceptions, like burying their father, retreat into their own pain?

Perhaps midrash — ancient, modern, or newly discovered — will reveal some answers. Maybe some of these questions are best left open.

Rosh Hashanah Torah Reading(s)

In Reform and some other congregations observing one day of Rosh Hashanah, the Torah reading is generally the story of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, Genesis 22:1-24. Where two days are observed, common practice is to read the Akedah story on Day Two and the story of Hagar and Ishmael being cast out, Genesis 21:1-34, on Day One.

In midrash, Sarah dies as a result of the near sacrifice of Isaac. So, whether or not Genesis 21 is read at the holiday, these stories highlight endangerment of both sons and both mothers and a family torn apart.

Genesis 25:7ff, when the brothers bury Abraham, is read as part of the regular Torah cycle, parashat Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1-25:18) but is not part of the traditional readings for the Days of Awe.
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interlude: Summer 5777

Tammuz is interlude, reiteration, steady growth,” writes Debbie Perlman, describing the month in the Jewish calendar which began this past weekend. She goes on to reference sprinklers, weeds, and fields already planted, concluding:

Hear us as we move into this time of increase,
As we gather up sunlight and breezes and rains
To lay aside against the unknowns ahead.
Hear us as we call You in truth.
— from “Ninety-One: Rosh Chodesh Tammuz”
IN Flames to Heaven: New Psalms for Healing & Praise

A few words about “interlude” and gathering up “against the unknowns ahead.”

“Against the Unknowns Ahead”

Taking a wide view of the Jewish calendar, we’re in a sort of dip between two peaks: Shavuot, festival of “receiving Torah,” and Simchat Torah, festival of “rejoicing in the Torah.”

For seven weeks, beginning on the second night of Passover, we counted “up” to Shavuot. The next milestone on the calendar, 40 days later, commemorates the incident of the Golden Calf — in other words, our failure to “receive” Torah very well. The Fast of Tammuz (this year: 7/11/17) launches a downward swing with “The Three Weeks” and Tisha B’Av, mourning loss of both Temples and other calamities faced by the Jewish people.

From that lowest point (9 Av, this year: 8/1/17), we begin the climb toward the new year, through the high holidays, Sukkot and, finally, Simchat Torah (this year: 10/13/17).

But right now, we’re still in the 40 days between Shavuot and the Fast of Tammuz. Reading ourselves into the Exodus story: We are still in the early days of liberty from Egyptian slavery; Moses is still on the mountain, obtaining the first tablets, which have yet to be smashed. We know nothing about the Golden Calf or the Spies and the decades of tromping in the desert, realizing the best we can hope for is that the next generation will make it out. Today, still, is about anticipation and hope for immediate changes in the life of our community.

From the vantage point of the Exodus story, this is a great time to “lay aside against the unknowns.” With a view to the Jewish calendar — and to the civic calendar in the U.S. — this is an important interlude to shore up resources for the challenging days ahead.

“When you come…”

The Torah potion Ki Tavo (“When You Come…”; Deut 26:1-29:8) is bookmarked by two fascinating passages: Near the beginning is he passage we read at the Passover seder, recapping our ancestors’ journey and our own through the Exodus; toward the end, we are told that it took forty years for us to understand what happened.

Deuteronomy 26: 5-10

וְעָנִיתָ וְאָמַרְתָּ לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי, וַיֵּרֶד מִצְרַיְמָה, וַיָּגָר שָׁם בִּמְתֵי מְעָט; וַיְהִי-שָׁם, לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל עָצוּם וָרָב.
And thou shalt speak and say before the LORD thy God: ‘A wandering Aramean was my father, and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there, few in number; and he became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous.

וַיָּרֵעוּ אֹתָנוּ הַמִּצְרִים, וַיְעַנּוּנוּ; וַיִּתְּנוּ עָלֵינוּ, עֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה
And the Egyptians dealt ill with us, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage.

וַנִּצְעַק, אֶל-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵי אֲבֹתֵינוּ; וַיִּשְׁמַע יְהוָה אֶת-קֹלֵנוּ,
וַיַּרְא אֶת-עָנְיֵנוּ וְאֶת-עֲמָלֵנוּ וְאֶת-לַחֲצֵנוּ
And we cried unto the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice, and saw our affliction, and our toil, and our oppression.

וַיּוֹצִאֵנוּ יְהוָה, מִמִּצְרַיִם, בְּיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרֹעַ נְטוּיָה, וּבְמֹרָא גָּדֹל–וּבְאֹתוֹת, וּבְמֹפְתִים.
And the LORD brought us forth out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great terribleness, and with signs, and with wonders.

[these two verses are not part of the Haggadah:]
וַיְבִאֵנוּ, אֶל-הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה; וַיִּתֶּן-לָנוּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת, אֶרֶץ זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבָשׁ.
And He hath brought us into this place, and hath given us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.

וְעַתָּה, הִנֵּה הֵבֵאתִי אֶת-רֵאשִׁית פְּרִי הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר-נָתַתָּה לִּי, יְהוָה;
וְהִנַּחְתּוֹ, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוִיתָ, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ.
And now, behold, I have brought the first of the fruit of the land, which Thou, O LORD, hast given me.’ And thou shalt set it down before the LORD thy God, and worship before the LORD thy God.

Deuteronomy 29: 1-3

וַיִּקְרָא מֹשֶׁה אֶל-כָּל-יִשְׂרָאֵל, וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם:
אַתֶּם רְאִיתֶם, אֵת כָּל-אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה יְהוָה לְעֵינֵיכֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, לְפַרְעֹה וּלְכָל-עֲבָדָיו, וּלְכָל-אַרְצוֹ
And Moses called unto all Israel, and said unto them: Ye have seen all that the LORD did before your eyes in the land of Egypt unto Pharaoh, and unto all his servants, and unto all his land;

הַמַּסּוֹת, הַגְּדֹלֹת, אֲשֶׁר רָאוּ, עֵינֶיךָ–הָאֹתֹת וְהַמֹּפְתִים הַגְּדֹלִים, הָהֵם.
the great trials which thine eyes saw, the signs and those great wonders;

וְלֹא-נָתַן יְהוָה לָכֶם לֵב לָדַעַת, וְעֵינַיִם לִרְאוֹת וְאָזְנַיִם לִשְׁמֹעַ, עַד, הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה.
but the LORD hath not given you a heart to know, and eyes to see, and ears to hear, unto this day.

Shabbat Ki Tavo falls this year between Labor Day, the traditional end of the U.S. “summer vacation” (9/4/17), and Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the new year (9/21/17). A sort of meta-interlude.

Now, in the interlude of early Tammuz, perhaps we can begin to “gather up sunlight and breezes and rains,” our communities’ stories and our own, in preparation for the travels ahead.

Broken-Heartedness and the Days of Awe

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One common, powerful theme of the high holidays is the idea of the broken heart. This is encapsulated prominently in the blowing of the shofar, with its shevarim [shattered] call. (See, e.g., The Shofar as Prayer at My Jewish Learning.)

All who hear the ram’s horn — during the preparatory month of Elul and the Days of Awe — are meant to experience a broken heart. And, so according to this story, is the one who sounds the shofar:

Rabbi Wolf, shofar blower in the synagogue of the Baal Shem Tov, has been studying special intentions for his annual role, but loses his crib sheet on the bima; forgetting everything, he blows the shofar with a broken heart. The Baal Shem Tov tells him,

“In the Palace of the King there are many rooms and halls, and each door to a room or a hall has a different key. But there is a better way to enter than to use the key, and this is to use an ax, which can open the locks of all the doors. The same is true of proper intentions. They are the keys to each and every gate, and every opening has the proper intention for it. However, the broken heart is an ax. It allows every person to enter all the gates and the halls of the King of Kings, the Holy One, Blessed be He.”
— Moshe Chaim Kalman, Or Yesharim.
see also The Light and Fire of the Baal Shem Tov.
Yitzhak Buxbaum. NY: Continuum, 2006.

Broken-heartedness is often described as requisite for prayer, particularly at the Days of Awe, as in this teaching from Abraham of Slonim (19th Century CE):

You should act in prayer as if you were a farmer: first you plow, then you seed, afterward you water, and finally things begin to grow. In prayer, first you have to dig deeply to open your heart, then you place the words of prayer in your heart, then you allow your heart to cry.
— found in Machzor Lev Shalem

Outside McPherson Square Metro Station, 9/15/15

At McPherson Square Metro Station, 9/15/15

In a season dedicated to atonement and forgiveness, reminders to open one’s heart are important. But how are we meant to respond to this call when our hearts are already broken? when we’re just barely hanging on?

Around the corner from the temporary synagogue where Fabrangen Havurah holds high holiday services, this message was painted on the sidewalk.

…An alternative thought for Shabbat Shuvah [the sabbath of “return”].

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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Teshuva in a Half an Inch of Water

Teshuva is a never-ending process because we are always changing and the context of our universe is always shifting….We need multiple opportunities for teshuva because our mistakes and errors change over time, and our circumstances are fluid.
— Erica Brown, Return: Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe, 2012

I was sitting in the bathtub, counting my toes
When the radiator broke, water all froze
I got stuck in the ice without my clothes
Naked as the eyes of a clown

I was crying ice cubes, hoping I’d croak
When the sun come through the window,
the ice all broke
I stood up and laughed, thought it was a joke
That’s the way that the world goes ’round
— John Prine, “That’s the Way that the World Goes ‘Round” (details)

The “fluid” circumstances Erica Brown mentions undoubtedly bear no intentional relationship to John Prine’s bathwater. But Prine’s song and Return: Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe have something related to say about teshuva, and together they offer a fruitful approach to “recovering” ourselves in this penitential season.
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Past, Present and Future in Teshuvah: Amichai, Zelda and the Pit

…The past is not a piece of
jewelry sealed in a crystal box
nor is it a snake preserved
in a bottle of formaldehyde—
The past trembles within the present
when the present falls
into a pit the past goes
with it —
when the past looks
toward heaven all of life
is upraised, even the distant past.
–Zelda, from “That Strange Night” (full text, notes)

The Pit

In a famous midrash, Joseph and his brothers return to Canaan to bury their father, and Joseph notices, by the side of the road, the pit where his brothers threw him decades before. Watching Joseph look into the pit, the brothers worry. They do not believe Joseph has forgiven their past deeds and continue to fear recriminations.

While the brothers in the midrash are fretting, however, Joseph recognizes the pit, despite its painful associations, as the source of all that happened to him later: his incarceration in Egypt, eventual rise to power, marriage and children; and, most importantly to the Genesis story, his ability to help his family when famine strikes their homeland.

Avivah Zornberg writes:

[Joseph] has gone to the trouble of returning to that place of his terror in order to bring closure to the old narrative. He makes the blessing for a personal miracle, claiming the site of his trauma as the site of redemption. By this act, he rereads the pit as a space of rebirth, transforming pain into hope. The grave has become a womb.
The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious, p.319; Continue Reading