Alice in Omerland (Beyond 35)

“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’” Alice said Through the Looking Glass. As we leave the omer week associated with “Glory” “[hod, in Hebrew] behind, let’s consider for just a moment Alice’s conversation with Humpty Dumpty about his use of the term.

Is Alice’s conversation with Humpty Dumpty far removed from recent discussions all across the U.S. about the term “thug”? Who gets to determine meaning?

When one image or video is described in at least two different, and mutually exclusive, ways by observers — as when a photo of black community members lining up in front of Baltimore police in riot gear is explained as both “protecting the police” and “first line of defense for protestors” — are we any less befuddled than Alice?

Moreover, traveling between communities (or news channels), the same events can start to look like poor Alice, one moment too small to notice and the next so large as to be frightening.

And so, as we pause to notice the strangeness of this journey —

BTW: Would that rabbit appear white if it spun faster? What are the components of “white”?

We counted 35 on the evening of May 8. Tonight, we count….

Making the Omer Count

from On the Road to Knowing: A Journey Away from Oppression
A key element in the journey from liberation to revelation is understanding the workings of oppression, and our part in them. We cannot work effectively to end what we do not comprehend.

So this year, moving from Passover to Shavuot, I commit to learning more about how oppression works and how liberation is accomplished. I invite others to join me:

Let’s work together, as we count the Omer, to make this Omer count.

Thoughts and sources welcome.


Share this graphic to encourage others to participate.

A Meditation

Aware that we are on a journey toward knowing God — from liberation to revelation — I undertake to know more today than I did yesterday about the workings of oppression.

I bless and count [full Hebrew blessings in feminine and masculine address]:

Blessed are You, God, Ruler/Spirit of the Universe, who has sanctified us with Your commandments and commanded us to count the Omer.

Today is thirty-six days which are five weeks and one day in the Omer.
Hayom shishah ushloshim yom shehaym chamishah shavuot veyom echad la-omer.

In the spirit of the Exodus, I pray for the release of all whose bodies and spirits remain captive, and pledge my own hands to help effect that liberation.

“Glory,” Humpty, and Alice

‘I don’t know what you mean by “glory,”’ Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t— till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”’

‘But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument,”’ Alice objected.

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master— that’s all.’

“When I make word do a lot of work like that,” said Humpty Dumpty, “ I always pay it extra.”

“Oh!” said Alice. She was too much puzzled to make any other remark.

“Ah, you should see ‘em come round me of a Saturday night,” Humpty Dumpty went on, wagging his head gravely from side to side: “For to get their wages, you know.”

(Alice didn’t venture to ask what he paid them with; and so you see I can’t tell you.)
–from Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson), 1871.

NOTE: I read some years ago that Charles Dodgson believed mundane use of language associated with religious imagery — think “awesome” or “terrified,” e.g. — eroded its meaning. And so, his choice of “Glory” for Alice’s conversation with Humpty Dumpty is not accidental. (No citation, sorry.)

RANDOM: Here, just for your information and entertainment, is the Woodstock footage, of “White Rabbit”


Moral State of Emergency (Beyond 34)

“God has declared a state of moral emergency,” writes Rabbi David Kasher in his commentary on this week’s Torah portion.

Kasher points out that a command to care for the poor suddenly appears in the midst of a portion otherwise dedicated to ritual matters stressing holiday observances, and comments:

Mind you, everybody agrees that charity is good and just. Everybody recognizes that feeding the hungry is a wonderfully noble thing to do. But, they think, nobody can be forced to do it. And so, in time, nobody does it. People speak of poverty with eloquence and compassion, but nobody actually gives to the poor.

It is a situation reminiscent of words written by another great 20th-century rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel, in a telegram he sent to President Kennedy, in the midst of the civil rights movement of the 1960s:

I look forward to privilege of being present at meeting tomorrow at 4pm. Likelihood exists that Negro problem will be like the weather. Everybody talks about it but nobody does anything about it. Please demand of religious leaders personal involvement not just solemn declaration. We forfeit the right to worship God as long as we continue to humiliate Negroes. Church synagogues have failed. They must repent. Ask of religious leaders to call for national repentance and personal sacrifice. Let religious leaders donate one month’s salary toward fund for Negro housing and education. I propose that you Mr. President declare a state of moral emergency.

Everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything about it. Racism, like poverty, is one of those social ills we can condemn with our reason, but leave completely unattended by our laws. We build up a great society, so orderly and so civilized… but the most vulnerable are left to fend for themselves.

This is what the Meshech Chochmah was worried about when he warned of the savage beast that we could too easily become. That is why he believed that we needed God to help us turn charity from an option into an obligation. Heschel, too, saw religious faith as a force for compelling social action, and the worship of God as all bound up in the preservation of human dignity.
— R. David Kasher, “State of Grace”
Read the whole commentary at ParshaNUT

And we might also call to mind the way Algren closes the 1961 addendum to Chicago: City on the Make (discussed yesterday and “beyond 23”):

For the [1951] essay made the assumption that, in times when the levers of power are held by those who have lost the will to act honestly, it is those who have been excluded from privileges of our society, and left only its horrors, who forge new levers by which to return honesty to us. The present revolution of a new generation of Negro men and women, now forcing the return of the American promise of dignity for all, sustains the assumption.
— Nelson Algren, Chicago: City on the Make, p.105

Thanks to Rabbi Alana Suskin for sharing the link above.

We counted 34 on the evening of May 7. Tonight, we count….
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Coates and Tyfereth, Algren and Mobley (Beyond 33)

“Passover is a time of remembrance but also one of renewal — of looking ahead toward the spring and new growth that will sustain us through the seasons to come. Once we spent spring in the desert. It was harsh and difficult but from that journey grew a people who have endured for centuries. What would happen if we took that journey again, not alone in the wilderness but surrounded by friends and allies, leaving no one behind?”
— from JFREJ Haggadah

from Baltimore, 2015, and Chicago, mid-20th Century.
In stereo.
With no comment:


part 1: “Family Breakdown”

Jim Crow was one heck of a barrier to entry, but it hasn’t been legal for decades. If legal barriers are no longer restraining African-American wealth growth, then what is? A cycle of poverty, but why? Coates dismissed family breakdown, but I suspect that’s closer to the truth than white supremacy.
— “Tyfereth,” on-line commenter at Atlantic Magazine, responding 4/30/15 to “Nonviolence as Compliance” by Ta-Nahisi Coates
—- See “In the Wake of Baltimore” — scroll, past the picture of two-year-old Ta-Nehisi, down to Tyfereth’s comments

part 2: “Out-of-Wedlock”

…I’ll leave it to the commenter to define, specifically, what they mean by “family breakdown.” I assume the commenter means children born out of wedlock. As the product of such a family—and as a Dad who fathered his only child out of wedlock—I reject the label. Nonetheless, whatever we call it, the “out of wedlock” theory has a serious problem—the out of wedlock birthrate in the black community is at its lowest point since the CDC began keeping stats. Indeed the gap between black and white women has been shrinking for the last 15 years. (I suspect that much of that shrinkage is the result of the rapid decline in teenage pregnancy in the black community.)

If the main driver of black poverty is black out-of-wedlock birthrate, and yet that birthrate is in decline, what explains the yawning chasm between black and white America?
— Ta-Nehisi Coates, responding to Tyfereth (see above), 5/6/15


part 1: “Illegitimate…All and on Welfare”

These 200,000-plus fatherless children…equal the combined populations of [Chicago suburbs] Arlington Heights, Evanston, and Oak Park.

No records are kept of how many of these children become public charges. A conclusion may be drown, however, from welfare figures….

In the 1950s my work took me into the homes of many disadvantaged persons. It was common — and shocking and frightening — to walk into a living room and confront 8 or 10 children and women, representing four generations, all on welfare, and more on the way.

…Do men and women, in or or out of marriage, unable or unwilling to emotionally and financially support a child have a moral and legal right to produce that child?
— Columnist Jack Mabley
from a 1970s column in the Chicago Tribune, similar in content to Mabley columns in the long-gone Daily News and longer-gone Chicago American

part 2: “Like Guinea Pigs”

To say “Each man’s death diminishes me” today only rouses cries of “they’re like guinea pigs out there.”

WhoLostNot to be surpassed in public service, the Evening [Chicago] American offers a new crusade by Chicago’s most heavily decorated fink; one whose honors are all self-awarded. While keeping an eagle eye on the broken brutes of Skid Row’s broken walks, he also finds time to expose mothers of illegitimate children found in movie houses while receiving state aid. This Malthusian revisionist’s cry is, “They’re multiplying like guinea pigs out there!” Implying that his kind of people have hit upon a method of reproducing themselves different from that of guineas pigs.
— from Nelson Algren, Chicago: City on the Make (1961 addendum, see also) and Who Lost an American? (NY: Macmillan, 1963)

“What would happen if we took that journey again, not alone in the wilderness but surrounded by friends and allies, leaving no one behind?”

We counted 33 on the evening of May 6. Tonight, we count….

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Conversing for Racial Justice (Beyond 32)

Lag B’Omer, the 33rd day of the Omer, brings a symbolic break in this 49-day journey from Passover to Shavuot. The 32-day plague wrought by disrespect among Rabbi Akiva’s students (see yesterday’s post) has ended. Lag B’Omer is a day of transition. We don’t necessarily cease mourning for who and what was lost, or stop analyzing how things went wrong. But, just as Akiva began anew with five students, it is time to for us to focus on rebuilding.

HeartThe plague story warns that a pretense of respect only obscures danger. It urges us to explore our own communities for places where similar hazards lurk, to engage in necessary conversations.

This break in the Omer is an opportunity to examine our journey, how far we’ve come and how far we’ve yet to go.

Now is a great time, too, to check in with others. It is not necessary to follow the same religious calendar in order to join together on a journey from oppression. Counting these days has its own peculiar set of commandments and its own set of benefits. But one need not count the Omer to make these days count.

Rebuilding Tools

Race Forward provides an array of materials designed to educate individuals and groups and facilitate conversations around racial justice. This post includes handy links to a number of their resources, including their relatively new series of videos on systemic racism — all intended for a wide-ranging audience.

Showing Up for Racial Justice works, more specifically, “with white people who are already in motion.” SURJ endeavors to avoid “the culture of shame and blame” which can be found in some activist circles, instead seeking “to bring as many white people into taking action for racial justice as possible.”

SURF offers resources, including suggestions for launching house parties and other conversational activities. Special Mothers Day materials speak to teachers, parents, and others working with children.

Many other groups work to unite people in action and/or further necessary conversations. If you have other resources to share, please post in comments or email me (songeveryday at gmail).

It will enhance our individual journeys to know others are with us. So, please consider using the comment section here to let everyone know you’re committing to begin the conversations we need, or just “like” this post (see star at far bottom of post). In addition, please share this post or the “Conversing for Racial Justice” image to help engage others.

We counted 32 on the evening of May 5. Tonight, we count….

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Death by Disrespect (Beyond 31)

How can we end the plague of disrespect around race-related topics that threatens our country with disaster? Perhaps the Omer journey shows us a way to begin.

Rabbi Akiva, a key player in the story of four who visited Paradise (see yesterday’s post), is also central to a narrative linked with the Omer period. The Talmud relates how 24,000 of Akiva’s students “died at the same time because they did not treat each other with respect.”

Later tradition identifies the “same time” as the first 32 days of the Omer and the proximate cause as a divine plague. (More below on Akiva and the Omer.)

Rampant, Unacknowledged Disrespect: Then…

The Talmud speaks of plague victims as “twelve thousand pairs of students,” referencing the practice of learning with a partner. Among the many questions this brief, symbolic tale raises is one of awareness: Did Rabbi Akiva realize his students were disrespecting one another and fail to intervene? Or did he somehow not notice the disaster brewing among ALL 12,000 pairs of students? How could anyone be that oblivious?

One explanation is that Akiva’s students outwardly gave the impression that all was well, pretending to respect one another’s opinions and learning.

Are we behaving any differently in this country today?

…and Now

How many of us have been vaguely aware that we live in a nation divided by White privilege but failed — whether through indifference, despair, or confusion — to address it, opting instead to go along to get along? And when an uprising occurs in Ferguson or Baltimore, how many of us find the whole thing too painful to consider in any serious way?

from JFREJ in NYC May 2

from JFREJ in NYC May 2

How many of us have engaged, however unconsciously, in the variety of mental gymnastics that help maintain the “all is well” impression, with any suggestion to the contrary attributed to isolated incidents and (usually “outside”) individual agitators?

How often have perspectives of people of color been dismissed as “extreme” by media, and individual consumers of it, instead of taken seriously?

And how often have we dismissed every perspective but our own, often using labeling — “liberal,” “Tea Party,” “Right,” “Left” — to define others as unworthy of consideration?

Ending the Plague

According to legend, there are 32 days of plague followed by 17 more days in the Omer. The Hebrew numbers “32” and “17” can be read as equivalent to the Hebrew words “lev [heart]” and “tov [good].”**

It is the “good heart” that seems to have been missing from Akiva’s learning community and that is all too often missing from discourse in our country today.

Perhaps we can begin to turn this around by consciously chipping away at the veneer of “all well” and pursuing real respect in its place.

What if each one of us committed to having one difficult, but honest and respectful, conversation about race?

Suppose 12,000 of us engaged in such a conversation, yielding 24,000 people with a slightly broader understanding! And if each of those 24,000 engaged someone else….

Imagine our experience of Revelation, at the end of the omer period, encompassing the many new perspectives gained during this journey. If we approach Sinai this year with hearts each a tiny bit more attuned to the neighbors surrounding us, what more might be revealed?

**lamed + bet = lev/heart (32) and tet + vav + bet = tov/good(17).

Who’s ready? And how might we share our commitments to this effort?

We counted 31 on the evening of May 4. Tonight, we count….

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The Most Dangerous of Dualisms (Beyond 30)


No one knows for certain what the ancient rabbi meant when warned his fellow mystical travelers against saying “Water! Water!”:

When you reach the stones of pure marble, don’t say, “Water! Water!” As it states, “One who speaks falsehood shall not endure before My eyes” [Psalms 101:7]
— Babylonian Talmud, Chagigah 14b

The speaker, Rabbi Akiba, is one of four who “entered Pardes [Paradise],” the only one who “entered in peace and departed in peace.” His instructions are understood as pre-trip warnings to other other three.

Some explanations for Akiba’s words liken pure marble to the place where upper (divine) and lower (mundane) waters meet, arguing against attempting to divide divine and mundane. Many teachings focus on dualisms, warning against dividing God into Light/Dark, Good/Evil, etc.

But Michelle Obama spoke, back in April 2013, to what I consider the most dangerous dualism of all: allowing some of our citizens to grow up “consumed with watching their backs” while others grow up enjoying a city’s riches.

Boundless Promise Lost

I wrote then:

Accepting such a state of affairs implies two sets of rules or, worse, two sets of expectations for human beings. This is tantamount to bowing to two gods.

At the “place of pure marble” — where the Torah tells us all humans are in God’s image — we must acknowledge that “every single child in [Chicago or any city] has boundless promise no matter where they live.” Failing to do so is blasphemy of the deepest kind, it “speaks falsehood” that cannot endure before God’s eyes.
— from Fabrangen Havurah‘s omer-counting blog, 2013

Meanwhile, Chicago, my first hometown, has lost so many to street and police violence, as has DC, my adopted hometown of 27 years. Losses across the country mount at a rate so high as to be numbing.

And this does not even begin to address suffering of, and long-term affects in, communities experiencing grief upon grief. Nor does it approach the dual reality Mrs. Obama described in our mutual hometown:

Today, too many kids in this city are living just a few El stops, sometimes even just a few blocks, from shiny skyscrapers and leafy parks and world-class museums and universities, yet all of that might as well be in a different state, even in a different continent.
— Michelle Obama, April 10, 2013

As discussed previously, this week’s attribute, Hod, is associated with empathy.

But the literal meaning of the word is “Glory.”

May the energy of this attribute impel us, finally, this week, to see that this dual existence is incompatible with God’s glory and “shall not endure before [God’s] eyes.”

The war on Black people in Baltimore is the same war on Black people across America. Decades of poverty, unemployment, under-funded schools and police terrorism have reached a boiling point in Baltimore and cities around the country.

This past winter our people were presented with hollow reforms. This spring we present to the world our visionary demands. Demands that speak to a world where all Black Lives Matter.

This will be our #BlackSpring.
Ferguson Action

We counted 30 on the evening of May 3. Tonight, we count….

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Empathy: Are We There Yet? (Beyond 29)

“A lot of my friends have been beaten, killed…by police,” 16-year-old Michael Singleton told Whoopi Goldberg on The View the other day. “I went down there to fight for what I stand for — my Black people.” Thunderous silence.

Six Seconds of Empathy

Singleton is the young man caught on tape being slugged in the face by his mother, who was “in a rage” (her words) upon seeing that he had joined a group throwing rocks at Baltimore police after the funeral of Freddie Gray. Toya Graham was then heralded “mom of the year” by a number of media outlets, and she and Singleton were interviewed a number of times by national media in the ensuing days.

SingletonCooperNicolle Wallace, co-host of The View, did ask Singleton if he was scared in his daily life in the neighborhood. But no one on The View offered condolences to a 16-year-old who had just expressed grievous loss. Not one second of outrage emerged as he related that agents of the state, meant to protect Singleton and his friends, hurt them instead.

Charlie Rose, who also interviewed the pair, did take about six seconds to acknowledge to Singleton, “so yours was an act of protest because of what happened to your friend.” That appears to be a record degree of empathy for Singleton in the many interviews he endured with his mother.

Sherill Ifill, of the NAACP, spoke on Rose’s program before Graham and Singleton, to the fearful circumstances “in which the mother found her son” and the need for systemic changes. She expressed far more compassion for beleaguered mothers of children in neighborhoods like the one Graham and Singleton inhabit.

What is Applauded? and What is Ignored?

It was Graham who was greeted on The View with thunderous applause as she described pummeling her son and then declared “throwing rocks at the police is not going to bring [Freddie Gray] back.” Graham also received a “thank you” from host Whoopi Goldberg, who added that “people need to know there are caring parents out there.”

But “Why is America celebrating the beating of a black child?” —

Praising Graham distracts from a hard truth: It doesn’t matter how black children behave – whether they throw rocks at the police, burn a CVS, join gangs, walk home from the store with candy in their pocket, listen to rap music in a car with friends, play with a toy gun in a park, or simply make eye contact with a police officer – they risk being killed and blamed for their own deaths because black youths are rarely viewed as innocent or worthy of protection….

This celebration of Graham reflects a belief that black youths are inherently problematic, criminal and out of control. The video also supports the idea that black fathers are absent, suggesting that all we need is an angry black mom to beat the “thug” out of an angry young man – and everything will be fine.
— Stacey Patton in a Washington Post opinion piece

Patton is author of the memoir That Mean Old Yesterday and a senior enterprise reporter at the Chronicle of Higher Education. See also, “In America, Black Children Don’t Get to Be Children.”

“What is so disturbing is that white supremacy is let off the hook,” Patton adds.

Moreover: A teenager reports that his friend was beaten by police, that police abuse is a regular part of his life, and earns barely a nod.

What does empathy, this week’s attribute on the omer journey, ask of us here?

Thanks to Amy Brookman for sharing one of the videos above and some concerns about it. Thanks to Kay Elfant for sharing the Charlie Rose link.

We counted 29 on the evening of May 2. Tonight, we count….

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