Oseh Shalom

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Omer 5782

Counting the Omer is one of the richest treasures built into the Jewish tradition. Originally an agriculturally-based ritual, it evolved into a way to symbolically share the Israelites’ travels from slavery in Egypt to freedom, and towards our readiness to accept the moral responsibilities embedded in the Torah.

Beginning with the second day of Pesach, and continuing for 49 days until Shavuot, the Omer guides us on a journey of the spirit, supplying us with a unique opportunity to cultivate self-awareness and self-possession, to deepen our capacity for kindness, compassion and gratitude.
As I have done in previous years, I will be preparing a daily Reflection for each day of the Omer that will hopefully illuminate and reveal some of the important themes and possibilities embedded in this ritual, and accompany you on your personal pathway towards growth and transformation.

If you are already on the mailing list for previous Elul and Omer Reflections, there is no need to sign up to receive them, you are automatically “on the list”. If you were not on the list but want to be on the list, send me your e-mail address and I’ll include you. And if there are any individuals whom you would like to be on the list, send me their e-mail address and I’ll add them.
As many have learned, Counting the Omer each day helps us to make each day count.

B’shalom,
Brad Sachs

Days 1 to 14

Day 15

 

Omer Day 16

Chevre,
Many of us are familiar with Shakespeare’s observation from his play, “As You Like It” that, “All the world’s a stage/and all the men and women merely players,”

There are many ways to understand this sentiment. Some hear in it a cynicism regarding what it means to be human, a belief that falsity, and a shortage of sincerity, combine to undergird, and to some extent, undermine, our motives and our behavior.
But there are other ways to understand these words, as well. In this regard, I find myself thinking of one of the best-known parts of the Haggadah, when we are instructed: “In every generation, a person is obligated to see oneself as though they have personally gone out of Egypt.”

Most of us do not consider this to be a request for dishonesty—we grasp, intuitively, that we are to play with the idea of putting ourselves in the shoes of another person, to “take the stage” of ancient Egypt. By doing our best to experience what our ancestors experienced, even from the safety and comfort of our own homes, we are better able to imagine what it feels like to be oppressed and victimized so that we are more likely to aid those who continue to be oppressed and victimized.

As part of this discussion, it is interesting to note that the word “person” derives from the Latin word for “mask”, yet the word for “hypocritical” derives from the Greek word for “stage-actor”. With this etymology in mind, is it even possible to be an ethical person, to live with integrity and authenticity?

But living “as though” is a crucial aspect of moral development. The act of pretending to be someone whom we are not is often how we learn to be a better person than we actually are. For example, when we embark on some version of “fake it till we make it”, fakery here is not based in insincerity but anchored in and by our effort to cultivate moral character. Acting “as if” isn’t always a simple matter of “living a lie”, it’s actually a fundamental ethical impulse, one that is designed to help us to overcome our most stubborn ethical flaws.
Rabbi Micha’el Rosenberg writes that, “Sometimes pretending that we, or the world around us, is other than it appears to be reveals deeper truths—or, perhaps, something deeper than truth.”

Living in an insulated, solipsistic, self-delusional world reveals shaky mental health, and is certainly nor a pathway towards becoming a moral exemplar. On the other hand, the reality is that pretending to be other than we are may at times not only be the best that we can manage, but also one of the most reliable avenues to travel in the direction of becoming, in the best sense of the word, a mensch.
Most of us eschew hypocrisy and react angrily when we encounter it, an encounter that seems to occur so frequently in our polarized, divisive world. But, as Shakespeare explains, none of us ever truly live without hypocrisy, either, and perhaps our goal is to aspire towards versions of it that are more virtuous than others, pursuing the imaginative mistruths that might carry us towards the foundationally sacred truths that we need to reckon by.

Here is the transliterated prayer to recite before the Counting. If you have a copy of the Reconstructionist prayerbook, Kol Haneshama, this prayer, and some additional thoughts and meditations, can be found on pages 674-683:
Baruch atah adonay eloheynu Melech ha’olam, asher kideshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu al sefirat ha’omer
Blessed are you, Eternal, our God, the sovereign of all worlds, who has made us holy with your mitzvot, and commanded us concerning the counting of the Omer
Ha-yom shesha asar yamim l’omer
This is the 16th day of the Omer

Today’s son, “Free” by the mysterious collective “Sault”, was recommended by Guest DJ for tonight, Dr. Matthew Sachs:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f-qm2rPhwaQ

A reminder that if you would like to suggest a song that you believe would also fit in with this year’s theme of “Liberation”, feel free to back-channel me a YouTube link, and I’ll see if I can insert it into the playlist at some point during these 7 weeks. Music from any genre and of any era will be cheerfully considered by the host : )

Omer Day 17

Chevre,
The threshold between adoration and idolatry can be gossamer-thin. As we discussed yesterday, attempting to become someone else cannot always be reduced to mere mimicry or mockery—it is a way to practice becoming someone better than we are.

Isaiah wrote, “Your eyes shall see the face of your teacher,” which suggests that learning is the process of welcoming a teacher’s face into our own face, drawing in and absorbing the light of his/her wisdom and allowing that light to irradiate our own light, as well as our shadows.
There is an echo of that process when we read about Moses’s communion with God: “And it was when Moses came down from Mount Sinai—the two Tablets of Testimony were in Moses’s hand as he came down the mountain—Moses did not know that the skin of his face was radiating light from speaking with God.” (Ex.: 34:29)

It is as if God’s wisdom has “lit up” Moses, and Moses, in turn, transfers that illumination to the Israelites.

On the other hand, I have always been guided by Emerson’s observation from his essay “Self-Reliance”: “A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the luster of the firmament of bards and sages…In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.”

All majesty may be our disowned, outsourced majesty, returning to us in the work or the words of someone else, work that may be nothing more than the result of parts of ourselves that we have dismissed and disregarded.

In this context, we might regard idolatry as the result of dismissing and disregarding our own wisdom. Idols do not have to take the form of objects, like statues—they can be other people, or ideas, or institutions, or works of art.

We often understand The Golden Calf fiasco as a vulgar manifestation of idolatry. The people adored Moses to such an extent that when he delayed returning from the mountaintop, they believed that they had been abandoned—abandoned by Moses, and by the divine power that they imagined was incarnate within him. For the Israelites, Moses embodied divinity, so in his absence a substitute divinity had to be found, and the Calf was the perfect replacement.

We all intuitively understand this because we all have intimate experience with this. Children panic when their parents are absent, which is why transitional objects like stuffed animals and actions figures help us manage when we feel alone. But if parental absence turns out to be an unexpectedly prolonged one, this loss can solidify into a traumatic one. Maturation requires the child to gradually learn to remain connected with the parent during the parent’s absence, but these absences have to be titrated carefully so that safety and self-assuredness can gradually develop, or an indelible wound in the child’s psyche may be created.

The “Children of Israel” endowed Moses with too much power and in doing so they gave up their own power, their own majesty. To return again to one of the themes that we discussed yesterday, they are unable to function “as if” Moses is still with them, so terrified are they by his disappearance. They have lost—or perhaps never had—the capacity to summon an image of Moses that would comfort them, that would help them feel secure and protected until he has returned. The immediacy with which they attempt to replace him with a hackneyed object of adoration suggests that they have much growing to do.

Is Moses aware of this? Does he worry that his own charisma symbolizes nothing other than itself, and that he, in fact, has become an idol, not all that different from The Golden Calf? Does he become aware that anything or anyone can be pressed into service by the idolatrous impulse, the desire to look outside of oneself for what actually lies within?

We do not get clear indications of this in the text. But we do know that perhaps the greatest danger behind the idolatrous impulse is the belief that there exists something or someone that is perfectly attuned to our needs. In seeking that perfection outside of ourselves, we lose contact with our inner self, with the necessary incompleteness that, much more than perfection, brings us ever closer to transcendence.
Here is the transliterated prayer to recite before the Counting. If you have a copy of the Reconstructionist prayerbook, Kol Haneshama, this prayer, and some additional thoughts and meditations, can be found on pages 674-683:

Baruch atah adonay eloheynu Melech ha’olam, asher kideshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu al sefirat ha’omer
Blessed are you, Eternal, our God, the sovereign of all worlds, who has made us holy with your mitzvot, and commanded us concerning the counting of the Omer
Ha-yom sheva asar yamim l’omer
This is the 17th day of the Omer

Revealing my Philadelphia roots, today’s song is the eternally hopeful classic “Love Train”, by The O’Jays, which does, in fact, make reference to “Israel and Egypt” : )
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2vTKmVvyNRc

A reminder that if you would like to suggest a song that you believe would also fit in with this year’s theme of “Liberation”, feel free to back-channel me a YouTube link, and I’ll see if I can insert it into the playlist at some point during these 7 weeks. Music from any genre and of any era will be cheerfully considered by the host : )

Omer Day 18

Chevre,
Tonight begins Yom Ha’Zikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, the 4th of Iyar, declared by the Knesset as a day to honor those who lost their lives in the struggle that led to the establishment of the State of Israel, those military personnel who were killed while in active duty in Israel’s armed forces, and those who were murdered in terrorist attacks in Israel.
As many of you know, Yom Ha’Zikaron precedes by one day Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israeli Independence Day, a linkage in time that unmistakably conveys the message that Israelis owe their independence, and the very existence of the Jewish state, to those soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice.
At the conclusion of Bereshit, Joseph makes one, final, poignant request, that his bones be carried with the Israelites as they leave Egypt—“Veha’alitem et atzmotai mizeh”. And even though Moses shattered the first set of Tablets given to him by God at Mount Sinai, the Israelites preserved those fragments and carried them, along with the new Tablets, in their ark.
With these two images in mind, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote, “There are cultures that forget the past and there are those that are held captive by the past. We do neither. We carry the past with us for as long as the Jewish people exist, as Moshe carried the bones of Yosef, and as the Leviim carried the fragments of the shattered Tablets of Stone.”
We cannot bring the dead back to life, but we can find ways to keep them alive in the only way that we can—in our minds and in our hearts. Through so doing, we prevent their deaths from having been in vain, and valiantly try to live in a way that pays tribute to what they died for.
Yom Ha’Zikaron reminds us that there will always be a struggle between memory and forgetting, but it is a struggle that we must fiercely engage in if memory is going to triumph. This commemorative day reminds that mourning entails not just letting go, but holding on, as well, holding on to the best parts of those whom we miss so that they can help us to lead better lives.

Here is the transliterated prayer to recite before the Counting. If you have a copy of the Reconstructionist prayerbook, Kol Haneshama, this prayer, and some additional thoughts and meditations, can be found on pages 674-683:
Baruch atah adonay eloheynu Melech ha’olam, asher kideshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu al sefirat ha’omer
Blessed are you, Eternal, our God, the sovereign of all worlds, who has made us holy with your mitzvot, and commanded us concerning the counting of the Omer
Ha-yom shemoneh asar yamim l’omer
This is the 18th day of the Omer

Tonight’s musical selection is an Israeli song, “Hare’ut” (“Friendship”), which was written a year after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war in honor of those who fell. It was a personal favorite of Yitzhak Rabin’s and in fact was performed at the Peace Rally at which he was later assassinated. The translated lyrics are pasted below the link:

An autumn night descends on the Negev
And gently, gently lights up the stars
While the wind blows on the threshold
Clouds go on their way.

Already a year, and we almost didn’t notice
How the time has passed in our fields
Already a year, and few of us remain
So many are no longer among us.

But we’ll remember them all
The elegant, the handsome
Because friendship like this will never
Permit our hearts to forget
Love sanctified with blood
will once more bloom among us

Friendship, we bear you with no words
Gray, stubborn and silent
Of the nights of great terror
You remained bright and lit

Friendship, as did all your youths
Again in your name we will smile and go forward
Because friends that have fallen on their swords
Left your life as a monument

And we’ll remember them all…

A reminder that if you would like to suggest a song that you believe would also fit in with this year’s theme of “Liberation”, feel free to back-channel me a YouTube link, and I’ll see if I can insert it into the playlist at some point during these 7 weeks. Music from any genre and of any era will be cheerfully considered by the host : )

 

Omer Day 19

Chevre,

Following on the heels of Yom Ha’Zikaron, this evening is Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israeli Independence Day.  We have naturally been focusing on Moses as we Count the Omer, but there is a modern day Moses named Theodore Herzl whose story strikes me as somewhat similar to that of his Biblical predecessor.

In fact, some have suggested that no one has transformed Jewish history since the 40-year Exodus from Egypt as fundamentally as Herzl did in the seven years from the publication of his 1896 pamphlet “The Jewish State” to his historic pledge in 1903 on the subject of Jerusalem at the Sixth Zionist Congress.

As we know, many of the heroes and pioneers of the return to Zion were not “religious” or “spiritual” in the conventional sense, Herzl among them.  But it is impossible to imagine the rebirth of Israel without sensing something close to divine in the hearts and minds of these individuals, despite an absence of traditional study or observance.

Herzl himself acknowledged that he was not the first person to dream of a Jewish state.  His approach to Israeli statehood was captured in his well-known epigram—“If you will it, it is no dream” (in the original German, “no fairy tale”).

 

In other words, his fundamental insight was that, before the Jewish people would be ready for a state, they would first have to change their character—through a process not unlike what their ancestors had undergone in Egypt and in the desert under the tutelage of Moses—and revive their will as a people

Another overlap between Herzl and Moses is the serpentine path each of them took towards leadership.  Herzl originally thought he had a calling as a playwright, but he did not get particularly far on that pathway.  Then he thought he had a calling as an essayist and reporter, but this kind of writing also provided him with only small successes.

But in June 1895, he was possessed by an all-encompassing idea—one that came from a mysterious source, like a voice in the night that he could not identify. Not dissimilar from a  hallucinatory Burning Bush, we might imagine, but audible rather than visual.  And at that point, he found his calling.  Or perhaps his calling found him.  Or, perhaps, some fortuitous combination of the two.

In any case, we sometimes underestimate how much opposition Herzl endured, much of it emerging from within, not just outside of, the world of Judaism.  He was opposed by Orthodox rabbis, who believed that a Jewish state should await the Messiah.  He was opposed by Reform rabbis, who no longer believed in the idea of re-creating a Jewish state.  He was opposed by assimilated Jews, who feared the divided nationalist loyalties that a Jewish state might arouse.  He was opposed by Jewish socialists, who considered any type of nationalism to be abhorrent.  And he was opposed by numerous Jewish public figures who quite simply thought his idea was absurd and unachievable.

So how did a young writer with no political connections, no ties to Jewish organizations, and no financial backing beyond his own resources negotiate with leading figures in the Western world’s ruling empires that would lead to the Balfour Declaration and eventually the creation of the state of Israel?  Just three years after one-third of the world’s Jews had been murdered—three years!—the Jewish people proclaimed the State of Israel.  Who could possibly have written such a script?

It is difficult to avoid using the word “miracle” when contemplating this astounding state of affairs.  But as Einstein famously wrote:  “There are two ways to live.  One is as though nothing is a miracle.  The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

Yom Ha’atzmaut Sameach

Here is the transliterated prayer to recite before the Counting.  If you have a copy of the Reconstructionist prayerbook, Kol Haneshama, this prayer, and some additional thoughts and meditations, can be found on pages 674-683:

Baruch atah adonay eloheynu Melech ha’olam, asher kideshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu al sefirat ha’omer

 

Blessed are you, Eternal, our God, the sovereign  of all worlds, who has made us holy with your mitzvot, and commanded us concerning the counting of the Omer

 

Ha-yom tesha asar yamim l’omer

 

This is the 19th day of the Omer

 

Today’s irresistibly catchy selection, “Hope” by the Israeli band Fountainheads, was recommended by Alan Rubinstein:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HsE1cAKM4Yc

A reminder that if you would like to suggest a song that you believe would also fit in with this year’s theme of “Liberation”, feel free to back-channel me a YouTube link, and I’ll see if I can insert it into the playlist at some point during these 7 weeks.  Music from any genre and of any era will be cheerfully considered by the host : )

Omer Day 20

Chevre,

The Book of Chronicles, which is the final book of the Bible, begins with a genealogy that describes our monotheistic forefather as “Abram, that is Abraham”.  One Talmudic interpretation of this odd little piece of nomenclatural clarification is that even with all of the journeying that Abraham embarks upon in his life, there is still a core part of him that is “Abram”—some essence of his initial identity remains immutable.

This observation certainly rings true from a psychological perspective.  Most of us would agree that our childhood experiences significantly mold and shape us, determining, to some extent, the kind of adult whom we become.  As we now know from a neuroscientific standpoint, it’s not simply a matter of “nature vs. nurture” when we consider these influences, but “nature through nurture”—early experience impacts our psychology as well as our neurology, and conspires with other internal and external forces to sculpt our identity.

With this in mind, it might be worthwhile to consider our story of The Exodus.  We are repeatedly reminded of what we gain by telling this story year after year, and we dutifully do so at our seders.  But we all know how Jews think, and there’s always more than one side to a story—even a story about the Telling of The Story : )  So it might be worth considering whether we lose something by re-telling it, as well.

One possibility is that by telling a story over and over again we run the risk of calcifying the story, soldering it into place so firmly that other perspectives and possibilities are lost.  One of my roles with certain patients, for example, is to try to penetrate and contaminate their stories in ways that enable them to understand themselves—who they were, who they are, who they are becoming—in different and more liberating ways.

A tale told many times over can certainly promote growth and exert healing powers, but it can also disempower the capacity for growth and healing if always told the same way, if new lessons are not given the opportunity to emerge from old stories.  Sometimes telling a story exactly the way that we want to tell it gives us a sense of control—but sometimes doing so reverses that process, and the story begins to control us.

So it is not enough for us to simply “Remember the Exodus”—we must not only narrate the story but interrogate the story, remove it from the mighty grip of how we would prefer to understand it and release its multiple, and often suppressed, dimensions and interpretations.

“Abram” remains at the psychological center of Abraham, but Abraham evolved into more than Abram.  The experience of being enslaved and then being liberated is the psycho-spiritual center of our Jewish identity and informs our values as a people, but it is not all that we are and all that defines us.

Perhaps it is best to consider the ritual of remembering and re-telling the Exodus story not just as a reminder, an act of memory, but as a way of putting memory into action, a method of motivating us to be liberated and transformed by the story in ways that ultimately change the lives of those for whom liberation and transformation has not yet been realized.

Here is the transliterated prayer to recite before the Counting.  If you have a copy of the Reconstructionist prayerbook, Kol Haneshama, this prayer, and some additional thoughts and meditations, can be found on pages 674-683:

Baruch atah adonay eloheynu Melech ha’olam, asher kideshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu al sefirat ha’omer

Blessed are you, Eternal, our God, the sovereign  of all worlds, who has made us holy with your mitzvot, and commanded us concerning the counting of the Omer

Ha-yom esrim yamim l’omer

This is the 20th day of the Omer

 

Today’s song, “Immigration Man”, by Graham Nash and David Crosby, was recommended by Michael Cornell:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-uKlRPaQmbM

A reminder that if you would like to suggest a song that you believe would also fit in with this year’s theme of “Liberation”, feel free to back-channel me a YouTube link, and I’ll see if I can insert it into the playlist at some point during these 7 weeks.  Music from any genre and of any era will be cheerfully considered by the host : )

Omer Day 21

 

Shabbat shalom, Chevre,

Our tremendously painful and polarizing national conversation on abortion rights may have indirectly spurred some of the thinking that led to my Omer Reflection for today…

Bulgarian Jewish philosopher Julia Kristeva has observed that language originates in an experience of loss, starting with our loss of the 9 months of in utero connection with the mother who gives birth to us.

We learn to be able to mourn loss—this original, primal loss of an inseparable parent figure, along with all of the other losses along the way—by developing symbolic language.  Words give us a chance to reclaim and recover what we have lost and to find a way to grow despite the inestimable pain of loss.  When we can speak about what we have lost, the magnitude of our loss becomes more manageable.  When we can’t, we become mired or marooned in our mourning, which is one way to understand what happens when we experience depression, the state that results when mourning loses its fluidity and become stagnant.

It is interesting, in this context, to pay close attention to when Moses speaks and when he doesn’t.  Throughout the early narrative of Exodus, Moses is silent.  The first words he speaks are when he sees two Hebrew slaves fighting each other, prompting him to cry out, “Why would you strike your fellow?”  But he is quickly silenced when one of them taunts him:  “Are you going to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?”  He says nothing in response, and flees.

He speaks again when he names his son, Gershom, “for he said, I have been a stranger in a foreign land” (Ex. 2:22).  As we know, naming a child is often a way of naming ourselves, to reflect upon who we have been, and who we have now become, as a succeeding generation takes the stage and begins the process of replacing us.  So it is not surprising that the elemental experience of being a foreigner becomes the origin of Moses’s name for his son.

We next hear Moses’s voice at the Burning Bush, when he says, “Let me turn aside to see this great vision” (Ex. 3:3).  But throughout God’s long speech, he utters only two questions:  “Who am I…” (Ex. 3:11) and “If they ask me, What is His name? what should I tell them?” (Ex. 3:13).   Both queries are framed by the need to understand mysteries—the mystery of himself, and the mystery of God.

And in both cases, Moses seems primarily concerned with how he will be perceived by, and how he will explain himself to, others.  In particular, he is worried about what the two parts that represent his now fractured self—Pharaoh and the Israelites—will think of him.  This might suggest that he is still struggling with his split identity, and the sudden, irreparable losses that led to the split.  Let’s remember—he loses one mother, Yocheved, when she casts him out into the river, then his sister arranges for his re-mothering by another mother, Pharaoh’s daughter, but then he loses her, too, as he flees Egypt in fear after killing the Egyptian.

Moses’s early experience is dominated by the bewilderment of being shuttled between different caregivers and different cultures, As Julia Kristeva wondered, “Should one recognize that one becomes a foreigner in another country because one is already a foreigner from within?”

We can certainly contemplate Moses’s difficulty with self-expression as simply being rooted in an anatomically-based impediment.  But, in this context, perhaps we can (also) envision it as the difficulty he is experiencing when it comes to developing language, to putting words to the unspeakable losses that undergird his infancy.  Or perhaps we can sit with both possibilities—maybe the traumatizing drama of his early childhood resulted in his stutter or stammer.

In any case, Moses’s description of himself as being “heavy of mouth and tongue” could be telling us that he is struggling to find the “mother-tongue” that will help him to mourn the loss of his two mothers.

We never triumph over loss, nor is it advisable to ignore it or avoid it.  And attempting to love less in order to lose less is certainly a demoralizing approach to life.  But as Exodus teaches us, maybe the best thing we can do when faced with the unrelenting pressure of loss is to find a way to talk about it, to create a sacred space in which we can enshrine our losses and find ways to accept them while still moving forward.

 

Here is the transliterated prayer to recite before the Counting.  If you have a copy of the Reconstructionist prayerbook, Kol Haneshama, this prayer, and some additional thoughts and meditations, can be found on pages 674-683:

Baruch atah adonay eloheynu Melech ha’olam, asher kideshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu al sefirat ha’omer

 

Blessed are you, Eternal, our God, the sovereign  of all worlds, who has made us holy with your mitzvot, and commanded us concerning the counting of the Omer

 

Ha-yom echad v’esrim yamim l’omer

 

This is the 21st day of the Omer

 

Today’s song, “What I Know” by Trevor Hall, was recommended by Guest DJ Nikki Lincoln:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=itB4dHOQE28

 

Omer Day 22

Hoping that all of you have enjoyed a restful and restorative Shabbat…

Yesterday, we were focusing on those moments when Moses speaks, those when he remains silent, and what he has to say when he does speak.  With this in mind, one of the complaints that Moses voices to God has always stood out to me:  “Did I conceive this people, did I give birth to it, that You should say to me, Carry it in your bosom, as a wet nurse carries the suckling child—to the land that You swore to its fathers?” (Numb:  11:11-12).

His words bring to mind my recollection of Tevye from “Fiddler on the Roof”.  As we recall, Tevye was a “dairyman”, a man who literally brought milk to others.  This image of male nurturance has always stuck with me, and perhaps helps to account for what is so enduring and endearing, throughout and beyond the Jewish world, about this musical.

Another image comes to my mind as I think about the grumbling grievance Moses shares with God.  I always take note of how patients of mine choose the profession that they choose, and how often this choice is rooted in their childhood experiences.  I remember treating a veterinary pathologist whose specialty was investigating and eliminating certain parasites that interfered with milk production in cows.

Early in treatment, I learned that his mother died in a car accident when he was six months old, at a point when he was still being nursed by her.  How revelatory it was for him to consider the possibility that his scientific work promoting milk production decades later might be rooted in the sudden and tragic cessation of his own access to milk during his bereft infancy.

So back to Moses, I wonder about the helplessness and hopelessness within which his cry to God was embedded.  God demands that he speak to his people but, as we have been discussing, he might feel as ill-equipped to speak to them as a male would be to conceive, to give birth, and to nurse.  Moses goes on to remonstrate, “I am not able to bear all this people myself alone, because it is too heavy for me” (Numb. 11:14)  Here again we see the word “heavy”, which Moses used to describe himself as “heavy of mouth and tongue.”

At some level, he must understand that the passionate and unwavering intimacy of biological motherhood in its most idealized form is absolutely unachievable for him.  This means that he must either find a way to feminize his masculine self and/or find a way to expand and elasticize what it means to be a man.

Of course, this is not going to be easy, as we hear when Moses, facing this El Capitan of an expectation, basically expresses a death wish in the next verse:  “…kill me, I pray…and let me not look upon my wretchedness” (Numb. 11:15).

Going back to my patient for a moment, maybe Moses’s longing to be nurse his people reflects back to the drama of his infancy—a mother who is lost, briefly and temporarily retrieved as a wet-nurse, and then replaced by another mother, complete with a new language, whom he eventually loses, as well.

We never hear him speak explicitly of this loss—better, this double loss.  But perhaps when he is desperately searching for the words to convey what he can’t do and who he is not, he is taking steps in the direction of what he might do and who he can become.

In some ways, Moses is at his most eloquent when he gives voice to the heaviness of his grief and, without necessarily being conscious of this, begins to put his inner life into words.  Perhaps that is true of all of us, as well.

Here is the transliterated prayer to recite before the Counting.  If you have a copy of the Reconstructionist prayerbook, Kol Haneshama, this prayer, and some additional thoughts and meditations, can be found on pages 674-683:

Baruch atah adonay eloheynu Melech ha’olam, asher kideshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu al sefirat ha’omer

 

Blessed are you, Eternal, our God, the sovereign of all worlds, who has made us holy with your mitzvot, and commanded us concerning the counting of the Omer

 

Ha-yom shenayim v’esrim yamim l’omer

 

This is the 22nd day of the Omer

 

Today’s song is “The Great Divide” by Kate Wolf:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T2Kn3j7o2yY

 

Omer Day 23

 

Shavuah tov, Chevre,

In the first weeks after they leave Egypt, the Israelites stop at a mysterious place called Elim, which is referred to in Exodus (15:27), and later on in Numbers (33:9) as a place where “there were twelve wells of water and seventy date palms” and where “they encamped…by the waters.”.

The Torah never states this explicitly, but the beautiful, spring-like images of Elim certainly bring to mind the possibility of healing and relief.  And it should come as no surprise that this exhausted tribe, still reeling from the physical and psychological wounds of generations of slavery and their recent dramatic departure from Egypt, would benefit from a stay at this oasis.

In this context, it is useful to distinguish between “curing” and “healing”.  Curing, particularly in American culture, generally refers to the complete resolution of a disease.  Healing (deriving from the Old English “to make whole”) may include or involve physical cure, but also encompasses the possibility of psychological and spiritual regeneration and repair after we have been wounded.

With this distinction in mind, I vividly remember a patient carefully emphasizing  that she was consulting with me not because she wanted me to “cure” her depression, but because she wanted me to help her to understand the magnitude of what she was facing—to walk with her through the “dark woods” that she was currently in the midst of.  I heard her request as a quest for healing—for wholeness—rather than as a quest for a remedy or antidote, even though the two quests obviously need not be incompatible.

So as we approach the half-way point of the Omer, perhaps we can envision our Counting as a chronological version of Elim, a 49-day “place” for us to rest, to recover and to heal.

In Song of Songs Rabbah (5:8) we read that, “Just as a sick person hopes for healing, so the generation of Hebrews in Egypt hoped for redemption.”

Around us at this time of year is the ripeness and richness of Spring.  Maybe the outer beauty that we are so abundantly surrounded by can help heal us by reminding us of the inner beauty that we too often lose sight of.  Restoring this connection might be one of the best ways to make the Counting of the Omer count, and to find the redemption that we were liberated in order to be able to pursue.

 

Here is the transliterated prayer to recite before the Counting.  If you have a copy of the Reconstructionist prayerbook, Kol Haneshama, this prayer, and some additional thoughts and meditations, can be found on pages 674-683:

Baruch atah adonay eloheynu Melech ha’olam, asher kideshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu al sefirat ha’omer

Blessed are you, Eternal, our God, the sovereign of all worlds, who has made us holy with your mitzvot, and commanded us concerning the counting of the Omer

Ha-yom sheloshim v’esrim yamim l’omer

This is the 23rd day of the Omer

 

Today’s song selection is “You’ll Lose a Good Thing” by Barbara Lynn, one of the few black female performers from her era the who wrote her own songs and also played a lead instrument:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K6-n4bEyzfk

 

Omer Day 24

 

Chevre,

Here is what I find to be a slightly puzzling midrash from Exodus Rabbah (44:1):  “Why is Israel compared to a grapevine?  Just as when a grapevine’s owners want to make it more beautiful they uproot it from one place and plant it in another place and it becomes more beautiful, so when the Holy one of Blessing wants to make Israel known to the world, the Holy One uprooted them from Egypt and brought them to the wilderness, and there they began to flourish.”

What left me scratching my head is that instead of the Holy One uprooting Israel from Egypt and bringing them to the Land of Milk and Honey to flourish, as promised, we learn that Israel is uprooted and “planted” in the wilderness.

This Midrash, and of course the Story of the Exodus as a whole, focus on the importance of the wilderness experience—the pain of being uprooted, of being exiled, of wandering without a clear path forward.  We all yearn for what is safe and familiar, but what is safe and familiar is not always conducive to our development.  It is often when there is a significant misalignment between who we are and the world that we are forced to live in that we find a way to summon the resilience and resourcefulness necessary to adapt, and to evolve.

The Hebrews, having been plucked out of Egypt, develop as a people not only because they have been relieved of slavery but also because they are forced to contend with a new and alien environment.  But let’s not romanticize this process.

A month after leaving Egypt they vividly complain, “If only we had died by the hand of God in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread!  For you have brought us out into his wilderness to starve this whole congregation to death” (Ex. 16:3).  In other words, they are suggesting that it would have been better to die as slaves with full stomachs in Egypt than as starving but free individuals in the wilderness.

The Hebrews have plenty of other complaints along the way, but one thing we notice is that God does not seem to be angered by this kind of thinking.  In fact, perhaps God has set aside these four decades of desert time and space in order to promote this kind of thinking. Just as a child needs time and space to fantasize without being able to act on those fantasies, our ancestors needed a similar vastness to begin to think for themselves without having the opportunity to act on those thoughts.  In other words, exactly how realistic was it for them to return to Egypt?  How many of them really believed that it was either feasible and/or advisable to return to their erstwhile domain of genocide?

Some of what they are thinking is clearly sarcastic (what a surprise—Jews being sarcastic!), some of it is subversive, some of it could be chalked up to just plain “pissing and moaning.”  But their serpentine, zigzag of a journey enables them—better, forces them—to pass through faith and doubt, vision and revision, despair and delight, horror and hope, rejection and renewal.

And, as a result, they emerge more abundant, more robust, and more enduring than they would have become if they had either remained well-fed slaves or if they bypassed 40 years of desert time and space and been suddenly and magically transplanted from the bondage of Egypt to the fertile freedom of the Land of Milk and Honey.

Being exiled isn’t the same as having faith, but sometimes it is exile that pushes us in the direction of faith’s welcoming arms.  Exile and opportunity may simply be inextricable.

Here is the transliterated prayer to recite before the Counting.  If you have a copy of the Reconstructionist prayerbook, Kol Haneshama, this prayer, and some additional thoughts and meditations, can be found on pages 674-683:

Baruch atah adonay eloheynu Melech ha’olam, asher kideshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu al sefirat ha’omer

Blessed are you, Eternal, our God, the sovereign of all worlds, who has made us holy with your mitzvot, and commanded us concerning the counting of the Omer

Ha-yom arba-ah v’esrim yamim l’omer

This is the 24th day of the Omer

 

Today’s song, “Testify” by the Isley Brothers, features a young guitarist named Jimi Hendrix:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FUdYp-6a4RA

A reminder that if you would like to suggest a song that you believe would also fit in with this year’s theme of “Liberation”, feel free to back-channel me a YouTube link, and I’ll see if I can insert it into the playlist at some point during these 7 weeks.  Music from any genre and of any era will be cheerfully considered by the host : )

Omer Day 25

 

Chevre,

In I Chronicles (12:33) we read, “The people of the tribe of Issachar were wise regarding matters of time, to know what Israel should do.”  In Genesis Rabbah (72:5) we read, “What does it mean, ‘matters of time’?…Rabbi Yosi bar Ketzari explains, ‘They knew how to intercalate the year.’”

We are now at the halfway point of the Counting of the Omer, smack in the middle of the period between Pesach and Shavuot.  So it is natural for us to take a moment to consider time and its passage.

Rabbi Yosi bar Ketzari’s explanation of the Issacharites’ unique wisdom when it comes to understanding “matters of time” refers to their ability to “intercalate the year”.  When we intercalate time, we insert it into the calendar, literally “adding time”, such as when we create a Leap Day or a Leap Month.

Perhaps one of the most valuable benefits of Counting the Omer is that it puts us in a position to more carefully consider time—the ways in which time lives within us, the ways in which we live within time, and perhaps also the ways in which, like the Issacharites, we can actually “create” time.

We know that a river can be painted or photographed, enabling it to be viewed or grasped.  Yet we also know that the flow of the river—the essence of its continual metamorphosis—cannot be viewed or grasped in any one particular moment.  Understanding at this level requires us to enter into the river of time.

The same is true when it comes to understanding an individual, or a group of individuals—there is fixity in any one moment, but that moment does not by itself speak to the growth or development of the individual or collective self.  This development, like any transformation, requires an accumulation of moments.  Time—this steady, infinite accumulation of moments—is what we need to knead us, to sculpt us, to give us our shape.

In his poem, “The Lamp Unlit”, Billy Collins writes:

…time enough to look here and there
as the caravan of time crosses the sand,

time to think of the dead and lost friends,
their faces hidden in the foliage,
and to consider the ruination of love,
a wisp of smoke rising from a chimney.

And who cares if it takes me all day
to write a poem about the dawn
and I finish in the dark with the night—
some love it best—draped across my shoulders.

 

To borrow the words of the poet, “who cares” if took 40 years for the “caravan of time” to cross the desert sand?  And “who cares” if it takes 49 days to make our spiritual pilgrimage from Pesach to Shavuot?  Maybe the Counting of the Omer is an opportunity to temporarily remove ourselves from the mighty grip of momentary time and—at least for a moment—silently enter the measureless vessel of eternity.

 

Here is the transliterated prayer to recite before the Counting.  If you have a copy of the Reconstructionist prayerbook, Kol Haneshama, this prayer, and some additional thoughts and meditations, can be found on pages 674-683:

Baruch atah adonay eloheynu Melech ha’olam, asher kideshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu al sefirat ha’omer

Blessed are you, Eternal, our God, the sovereign of all worlds, who has made us holy with your mitzvot, and commanded us concerning the counting of the Omer

Ha-yom chamesha v’esrim yamim l’omer

This is the 25th day of the Omer

 

Here is a heartbreaking live version of today’s song, “In My Secret Life” by Leonard Cohen, in duet with Sharon Robinson:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4EHJHqhqEz4

 

Omer Day 26

Chevre,

There are many ways in which the Exodus story is unique, distinguishing itself from many other ancient tales of voyage and discovery.  One of the most interesting lies in the fact that this journey does not, as is typical of these archetypal chronicles, begin and end at the same place.  Unlike Homer’s Odyssey, for example, which concludes with a return home, the Israelites are promised a land that is new to them, one without anyone waiting to greet them, to welcome them back.

In this context, it cannot really be said that the Jews “wandered” in the Wilderness, because their journey, circuitous and challenging as it may have been, was one that took them from Egypt to Canaan, from slavery to freedom, from “one place to another”.  It was a march forward not only in time and space, but also in terms of ethical growth and development—the plot centers on the moral transformation of an entire people much more than on their aimless meandering.

The previous book in the Hebrew Bible, Genesis, is compelling because it is about individual men and women and their families.  We gravitate to it because we recognize so much of ourselves in these realistic portrayals of our flawed, clay-footed ancestors.

The Book of Exodus grabs us in a different way, however, because our story now becomes the story of a people, rather than a person. The most notable individual, Moses, surely plays a significant role, but he still reveals significant limitations.  As we have been discussing, this is a deeply traumatized man who needs his brother to speak for him and his sister to sing and dance for him.  He is unable to lead his people into the Promised Land, only towards it.

In other words, the protagonist in Exodus can perhaps be better understood not as any one particular  individual, but as a bewildered clan who are struggling to figure out whether or not it makes sense to sign off on a radically new and complicated bargain—release from the slavery that they are leaving behind in return for shouldering the responsibility that they are being asked to take on.

But as we read this story year after year, we sometimes have no choice but to wonder if this mulish tribe really is redeemable, if they truly deserve the redemption that is being offered to them.

There is no going back to Egypt for the Israelites, despite their frequently desperate desire to do so—there is only the inexorable journey forward, to the land that was promised to them, but promised with certain expectations that, to some extent, frighten and torment them as much as, perhaps even more so than, the bondage that they are fretfully leaving behind.

Sometimes, the first thing that people do with their freedom is to seek out, create or re-create another version of what initially imprisoned them.  We can be oppressed by other forces besides oppression, even by freedom itself.  Exodus teaches us that there can be no meaningful story about liberty without simultaneously contemplating its loss.

Here is the transliterated prayer to recite before the Counting.  If you have a copy of the Reconstructionist prayerbook, Kol Haneshama, this prayer, and some additional thoughts and meditations, can be found on pages 674-683:

Baruch atah adonay eloheynu Melech ha’olam, asher kideshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu al sefirat ha’omer

 

Blessed are you, Eternal, our God, the sovereign of all worlds, who has made us holy with your mitzvot, and commanded us concerning the counting of the Omer

 

Ha-yom shesha v’esrim yamim l’omer

 

This is the 26th day of the Omer

 

Today’s song is a live version of the instrumental piece, “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” performed by jazz saxophonist Cannonball Adderly:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H7jqyBq9hes

 

Omer Day 27

Chevre,

A complicated but common psychological phenomenon is known as “identifying with the aggressor”, a mechanism that can sometimes help to explain why someone who was victimized may wind up victimizing others.

One would think, of course, that an individual who was victimized would be the least likely person to victimize others, but the relationship between abuser and abused is a complex and knotty one and, in certain situations, under certain conditions, an abused individual is actually more prone, rather than less, to re-enact abuse.

One way to understand this is that the trauma of abuse produces such profound, unmanageable fear that inducing that same level of fear in others becomes a reliable way of not being overcome by that fear.  Forcing others to suffer as one has suffered ejects and dramatizes the victimizer’s own suffering—when bullies are able to see their own fear manifested in the eyes of others, either on the world stage or on the playground, they are emancipated from that fear, and (at least temporarily) no longer dominated by it.

From my perspective, one of the most psychologically sophisticated elements of the Exodus is that the Israelites are aware that they will have to battle against the inescapable tendency to “identify with the aggressor” and become oppressors in the Promised Land, as well as anywhere else they take up residence.

The Torah describes the situation in the following way:  “And (the Egyptians) made their lives bitter with hard bondage, in mortar, and in brick, and in all manner of service in the field; all their service, wherein they made them serve, was with rigor” (Exod. 1:14).

I read that the Hebrew word for “with rigor” is be-farech, a word that shows up only one other time in the entire Torah, when the laws for the treatment of Israelites slaves are laid down:  “Thou shall not rule over (them) with rigor (Lev: 25:3).  Biblical legislation also imposes a term limit on enslavement:  “If you buy a Hebrew servant, six years shall he serve:  and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing” (Exod. 21:2).

In Deuteronomy, one of the reasons supplied for the establishment of the Sabbath is “that your manservant and your maidservant may rest as well as you…remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 5:14).  Exodus provides other safeguards, as well, insisting that “if a man smite his servant or his maid…and he die under his hand; he will surely be punished,” (Exod. 21:20) and if a slave suffers physical injury at the hands of his master, he is to be set free (Exod. 21: 26-27).

Slavery in any format is shameful, despicable and wholly inhumane.  But the aforementioned rules, among many others, not only convey the Israelites’ understanding of how they suffered while enslaved in Egypt, but also are designed to ensure that they do not inflict identical suffering on others.  It is as if these carefully legislated restraints provide a psycho-political inoculation against an “identification with the aggressor” with the aggressor, in this case, being Pharaoh.

It is important to remember that the Israelites did not simply leave Egypt—they made a collective decision to live according to a moral order that was in complete opposition to Pharaoh’s tyranny, to spurn, condemn, reject, and repudiate all that was associated with their bondage.  There is much that distinguishes escape and liberation, and, in the story of Exodus, it is the latter, not the former, that is taking place and being emphasized.

By refusing to forget what we endured, and by employing and adhering to the laws that were established to counter what we endured, we are engaged in an ongoing commitment to  make good on the Promise of the Promised Land, to fight enslavement in any form, wherever it still occurs.

Here is the transliterated prayer to recite before the Counting.  If you have a copy of the Reconstructionist prayerbook, Kol Haneshama, this prayer, and some additional thoughts and meditations, can be found on pages 674-683:

Baruch atah adonay eloheynu Melech ha’olam, asher kideshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu al sefirat ha’omer

Blessed are you, Eternal, our God, the sovereign of all worlds, who has made us holy with your mitzvot, and commanded us concerning the counting of the Omer

Ha-yom sheva v’esrim yamim l’omer

This is the 27th day of the Omer

Tonight’s song is “Ballad of Lost” by Amythyst Kiah:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fVYoUvv-uoM

 

Omer Day 28

Shabbat shalom, Chevre,

In previous Reflections we have been exploring the many ways in which the fugitive Israelites are portrayed as slavish and servile, and how their slavish, servile mentality needs to literally die off—either by attrition or by purging—before they will be allowed to enter The Promised Land.  Yet there is another description of our ancestors that, in some ways, runs counter to this image, that of being “stiff-necked”—recalcitrant and unyielding.

From one perspective, our stiff-necked heritage is seen as a liability—the stubborn refusal to follow Mosaic and Divine leadership and guidance leads to crisis after crisis, punishment after punishment.  “Why don’t they just get it?” both Moses and God wonder, “Why must they resist—and even regress—at every turn?”

From another vantage point, however, one might conclude that being stiff-necked is as much asset as liability.  For one thing, it suggests that there is still some life and psychological vigor left in these people, even after generations of bondage.  After all, rebellion against God, immature and problematic as this rebellion might be at times, is still evidence that their collective initiative and autonomy have not been totally vanquished by generations of slavery.

Often, when I am treating families, the parents are primarily concerned with the child who is the most defiant, the most “stiff-necked”.  The other child(ren) may be of less or little concern because they present fewer difficulties—they are more compliant, more cooperative, and their aims and ambitions appear more congruent and aligned with what parents expect.

Yet as I become better acquainted with the family dynamics, I sometimes find myself less worried about the child who has been identified as “the patient” and more worried about other offspring.  The “problem child” may be fulfilling his/her developmental tasks—fighting for separateness and distinction, insisting on advocating for themselves and being heard, rattling the family cage in an effort to awaken everyone from their psychological or spiritual torpor—much more effectively than his/her sibling(s) may be.  This may make things much more difficult for parents in the present, but it suggests that there may ultimately be a solid, self-assured young adult who will inhabit the future.

A Midrashic story tells us that when the Israelites were finally allowed to leave Mount Sinai, they hurriedly packed everything up and marched for three days, rather than for the one day that they were commanded to.  The reason for this, it is (almost good-naturedly) proposed, is that they didn’t want to have to hear about or commit to any more commandments—they’d had enough (another way to understand Dayenu!)

In some ways, based on the themes we have been examining thus far, it can easily be imagined that they were actually less ambivalent about leaving Mount Sinai behind and making sure that they didn’t return than they were about leaving Egypt behind and making sure that they didn’t return—the Commandments may have felt more oppressive than oppression, itself.

On the other hand, it should also be noted that when they did leave the holy mountain, it might have looked and felt as if they were fleeing, but they didn’t return to Egypt despite its strong emotional undertow, they continued on their march towards The Promised Land.

From my perspective, stubbornness is one of the strategies that we rely on to counter our deep fear of being absorbed and obliterated, of becoming invisible.  While unmitigated stubbornness can certainly trap us in its own carapace, it also protects us from being inundated and engulfed.  After having been dominated by the Egyptian taskmasters for so long, it is natural that our ancestors would be at least somewhat hesitant to shoulder another yoke, one that, despite being constructed out of the unique materials of moral imagination, may have felt at first like just another form of domination.

Here is the transliterated prayer to recite before the Counting.  If you have a copy of the Reconstructionist prayerbook, Kol Haneshama, this prayer, and some additional thoughts and meditations, can be found on pages 674-683:

Baruch atah adonay eloheynu Melech ha’olam, asher kideshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu al sefirat ha’omer

 

Blessed are you, Eternal, our God, the sovereign of all worlds, who has made us holy with your mitzvot, and commanded us concerning the counting of the Omer

 

Ha-yom shemoneh v’esrim yamim l’omer

 

This is the 28th day of the Omer

 

Today’s song, “Good Day”, is by the American soul band The Seratones:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h2CtzDSjfS4

Omer Day 29

Shavuah tov, and hoping that all of you enjoyed a restful and restorative Shabbat,

Robert Frost wrote one of his most famous poems, “Desert Places” while in the midst of struggling with a series of illnesses and serious bouts of depression.  Its concluding stanza is an unforgettable depiction of spiritual bleakness:

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces

Between stars—on stars where no human race is.

I have it in me so much nearer home

To scare myself with my own desert places

As we consider the Exodus, we often make reference to the Israelites’ forty-year sojourn in the desert, but what must it be like to experience “desert places”, and to do so for that long?

Having recently been given the gift of the book, “American Silence”, a compilation of photographs by Robert Adams, I found myself contemplating that experience in a different way.  Adams’s photographs were described by one critic as “distinguished not only by their economy and lucidity, but also by their mixture of grief and hope.”

Adams earned a Ph.D. in literature and was, for a time, an English professor.  He believed that a photograph that has been perfectly taken and perfectly viewed, like a poem that has been perfectly rendered, can reveal universal truths hidden in brief instants of time.

Many of his photographs sacramentally capture an austere beauty, and he noted that places that may seem empty and desolate can reveal many wonders—“one just had to watch better.”

This reminds me of a passage from Willa Cather’s My Antonia, who explained, “I felt motion in the landscape…and in the earth itself, as if the shaggy grass were a sort of loose hide and underneath it herds of buffalo were galloping, galloping…”

Certain individuals (whom we often call “artists” or “spiritual leaders”) are able to “watch better” or “listen better” or “feel better” or simply “experience better”—and more deeply—than the rest of us can.  They help us to see beauty and truth in the world—no matter how damaged the world may at times be—with such clarity and insight that a higher order is implied, a mystery greater than we are is suggested.

We don’t know if the Israelites literally traveled through the desert for forty years, but we are all intimately acquainted with our personal and collective “desert places”.  And when we are in them—for however long—time seems to both stand still and stretch out endlessly.  But one way to read Exodus is as a narrative that urges us to visit our inner desolation with the care and attention of an artist like Adams, such that a higher order and a greater mystery can be summoned and revered.

Baruch atah adonay eloheynu Melech ha’olam, asher kideshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu al sefirat ha’omer

 

Blessed are you, Eternal, our God, the sovereign of all worlds, who has made us holy with your mitzvot, and commanded us concerning the counting of the Omer

 

Ha-yom tesha v’esrim yamim l’omer

 

This is the 29th day of the Omer

 

Today’s song is “Calling me Home” by Rhiannon Giddons:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3siE2xbVD34

 

Omer Day 30

Chevre,

 

Rainer Marie Rilke’s poem “Imaginary Career” in some ways seems to prismatically capture the essence of our ancestors’ journey from Genesis to Exodus:

 

At first a childhood, limitless and free

of any goals. Ah, sweet unconsciousness.

Then sudden terror, schoolroom, slavery.

The plunge into temptation and deep loss.

 

Defiance. The child bent becomes the bender,

Inflicts on others what he once went through.

Loved, feared, rescuer, wrestler, victor,

He takes his vengeance, blow by blow.

 

And now in vast, cold empty space alone.

Yet hidden deep within the grown-up heart,

A longing for the first world, the ancient …

Then, from his place of anguish, God leapt out.

 

It is easy to imagine, in “Imaginary Career”, humankind’s growth from Edenic childhood, “limitless and free of any goals”, through the “sudden terror(s)… of slavery”, and the subsequent “plunge into…deep loss.”

And when he writes, “Defiance.  The child bent becomes the bender”, we are reminded of how stubborn and intransigent the Israelites were soon after their liberation from Egypt, and how we were urged to resist oppressing others in the ways in which we were oppressed, to not “…(inflict) on others what (we) once went through.”

Finally, we find ourselves in the “vast, cold empty space” that we were discussing yesterday in the context of the photographs of Robert Adams, and the words of Robert Frost, the “desert places” that open up in the grown-up heart as a result of the “longing for the first world, the ancient…”

And yet it is only through making this mysterious journey that we ready ourselves for the presence of the divine, which then, unbidden, leaps out at us, towards us, perhaps even from within us.

For me, Rilke’s poem is a poem about hope.  And interestingly, the Hebrew word for hope (ayachel) has within it the root word for “space” (chalal).  In this regard, we might consider that hope only becomes possible when there is a space for hope, a place for hope, when there is a break in continuity, a rupture in relatedness.  A frictionless merger—whether between parent and child, spouse and spouse, God and the human being, friend and friend—sounds lovely and appealing in some ways but actually precludes the possibility of hope, which needs a separate space within which to take root and germinate.

American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who is credited with having authored the well-known “Serenity Prayer”, also commented that, “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in

our life time; therefore we must be saved by hope.”

The 49 Days of the Omer could in some ways mimic the travel from Rilke’s “sweet unconsciousness of childhood” through the multiple roles of “loved, feared, rescuer, wrestler and victor” as we stumble our way across the topography of hope and hopelessness in an effort to  emerge into life, affirm the life that we are living, and plant the seeds for the lives that will follow and transcend our own.

It is from this “anguished place” that we come closest to what is most truly spiritual, to finding ways to love life even while we are found wanting, even while we feel sorrow, even while we are plunged into deep loss.

To conclude with some final words from Rilke, from his third “Sonnet to Orpheus”:

…Learn to forget that passionate music.  It will end.

True singing is a different breath, about

Nothing.  A gust inside the god. A wind.”

           

Here is the transliterated prayer to recite before the Counting.  If you have a copy of the Reconstructionist prayerbook, Kol Haneshama, this prayer, and some additional thoughts and meditations, can be found on pages 674-683:

Baruch atah adonay eloheynu Melech ha’olam, asher kideshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu al sefirat ha’omer

Blessed are you, Eternal, our God, the sovereign of all worlds, who has made us holy with your mitzvot, and commanded us concerning the counting of the Omer

Ha-yom sh’loshim yamim l’omer

This is the 30th day of the Omer

 

Today’s song is “Higher Ground” by the incomparable Stevie Wonder, is from his album “Innervisions”:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4wZ3ZG_Wams

 

Omer Day 31

Chevre,

Psalm 119 is the longest psalm, and in fact the longest chapter, in the Hebrew Bible.  Being that it is in acrostic form, legend has it that King David used it to teach his son, Solomon, not only the alphabet of letter-writing, but also the alphabet of a spiritual life.

I do not have any kind of comprehensive acquaintance with the Psalm, but one line always stood out to me:  “If your Torah had not been my plaything, I should have perished in poverty!”  I have seen “plaything” translated as “delight” but I prefer the former because the concept of “playing” is of inestimable importance when it comes to understanding our journey from Egypt to Sinai, our voyage from Pesach to Shavuot.

Indian poet Rabindrath Tagore concludes “On the Seashore” with this beautiful stanza:

On the seashore of endless worlds children meet. Tempest roams in the pathless sky,

ships are wrecked in the trackless water, death is abroad and children play.

On the seashore of endless worlds is the great meeting of children.

 

Play is so important because it exists at the threshold between our inner worlds and our outer worlds, between what is conscious and what is unconscious.  Play comes naturally to children, but when we lose the capacity to play—and many of us do as we leave childhood behind—we become psychologically impoverished, indeed, a state that harks back to the Psalmist’s words, “I should have perished in poverty.”

When I am treating children, I am often engaging in play therapy because that is the therapeutic language that they speak most fluently.  I have spent countless consultation hours in an office-based version of Tagore’s Seashore—drawing and sculpting, preparing and performing elaborate puppet shows and tea parties, throwing and kicking nerf balls, re-inventing board games with constantly morphing rules, being schooled in their dance moves, or the thrusts and parries that they’re mastering in their martial arts class, and staging spectacular Hot Wheels wrecks on overpasses constructed out of my office chairs and trash-cans.  Play with the children whom I take care of is (paradoxically) very serious business.

But the same is true with my adult patients.  In that work, therapy is also taking place where the patient’s capacity to play and my capacity to play intersect and overlap.  And if I sense that my patient appears to have lost the capacity to play, I see my primary job as helping him or her to remember how to do so.

Pharaoh, like most dictators, intuitively understands that play is his greatest enemy.  When he demands, “Let heavier work be laid upon the men” (Exodus 5:9), he is effectively attempting to quash their capacity to dream, to envision, to invent and create a world that is different from the one he crushingly imposes upon them.  Once the process of play is underway, liberation becomes possible and redemption becomes inevitable.  Imaginative play is the most dangerous adversary of the totalitarian regime.

We are the People of the Book, and our Books serve many purposes.  They deserve to be read, to be studied, to be interpreted.  But most importantly, they are asking to be “played with” so that we have a chance to uncover and discover the truths that enchantingly lie beneath their endlessly dancing words.

Here is the transliterated prayer to recite before the Counting.  If you have a copy of the Reconstructionist prayerbook, Kol Haneshama, this prayer, and some additional thoughts and meditations, can be found on pages 674-683:

Baruch atah adonay eloheynu Melech ha’olam, asher kideshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu al sefirat ha’omer

 

Blessed are you, Eternal, our God, the sovereign of all worlds, who has made us holy with your mitzvot, and commanded us concerning the counting of the Omer

 

Ha-yom echad sh’loshim l’omer

 

This is the 31th day of the Omer

 

Tonight’s song is Roseanne Cash’s version of Tom Waits’s classic “Time, Time, Time”, which was on the album “Women Sing Waits”:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1JXa_zeq3T4

 

Omer Day 32

Chevre,

Maimonides characterizes “those who have separated themselves from the ways of the community” in the following way:

            They are people who have cast off the yoke of the commandments from upon themselves, and are no longer included in the generality of Israel with respect to keeping the commandments and respecting the holidays and attending the houses of worship and the houses of study, as if they were free for themselves.

I have found myself pondering this final phrase:  “…as if they were free for themselves.” From my perspective, “free for themselves” could mean many things, not all of them incompatible—for example, perhaps he means “free to do what I want” or “free in a way that is actually imprisoning”  or “free of obligation and duty”.

If I had to choose, I would guess that Maimonides doesn’t seem to be suggesting that freedom itself can be problematic, but that what it is used for and how it manifests itself can be problematic.  If freedom entails nothing more than a shrugging off of obligations and duties, it will inevitably turn out to be some form of narcissism, or some form of counterfeit freedom—maybe a version of the proverbial “golden handcuffs.”

A scene from The Wild Ones comes to mind, in which Mildred asks Johnny (played by Marlon Brando), “What are you rebelling against?”, and his timeless response is, “Whaddya got?”

Maimonides, should he have had the chance to view The Wild Ones, might suggest that this kind of freedom, the freedom of the gratuitous, witless rebel, is really an inferior freedom—a form of compulsion, an indication that the outlaw is ruled by, rather than the ruler of, his angers, ambitions and aspirations.

In this respect, we might consider that two of the basic fears that human beings face are the fear of abandonment, and the fear of being trapped.  We respond to the former by attempting to hold on to others in an obsessively needy or controlling way.  We respond to the latter by becoming mindlessly rebellious, certain that our borders will be obliterated and our independence will be imperiled.  Limits set by others, or by the community, are not experienced as boundaries to respect but as violations to be repelled.

In a sense, this response can be seen as a form of abandonment, too, in which we basically abandon ourselves to reflexively reacting to what we perceive as the motives of others rather than attending to what we perceive as the motives within ourselves. Either way, rebellion  along these lines certainly does not seem to yield any kind of meaningful freedom.

On the other hand, human and societal development depends upon rebellion—there can be no growth without rebellion and, without growth, there is stagnation, which is just another form of imprisonment.

To my way of thinking, this is akin to musical developments.  Many classical musicians, upon first hearing jazz, did not consider it to be actual music.  Many jazz musicians, upon first hearing rock-and-roll, did not consider it to be actual music.  Many rock-and-roll musicians, upon first hearing hip-hop, did not consider it to be actual music. But eventually, revolutionary new forms become more acceptable and popular and begin to blend into old forms, until another rebellion takes place, another new genre is born, and the process starts anew.  Can this kind of rebellion truly be written off as “inferior”?

And, to go back to the beginning of our foundational Exodus Story, weren’t we essentially slaves who rebelled against our master, Pharaoh?

I think of Camus’s observation:  “The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.”

So how do we determine what comprises Camus’s “absolute freedom”?  I suppose part of that determination will rely on our willingness to restrain ourselves, which does not have to be (although often is) seen as antithetical to being free.

If we are going to avoid global environmental catastrophes, for example, we have to learn to restrain ourselves when it comes to our reliance on fossil fuels—this restraint is in the service of a larger freedom, the freedom to live healthfully on an ecologically-balanced  planet.  Likewise, if we are going to find ways to avoid global moral catastrophes, that will require a restraint of sorts, as well, in this case restraining our impulses and desires.

This takes us back to Maimonides’s concluding words—“free for themselves”.  If freedom means nothing more than a self-involved, self-absorbed freedom that cuts us off from our community, then it has little value.

Camus’s “absolute freedom” will not be discovered within the framework of individual choice, but in the pursuit of collective responsibility.  Maybe it is the fulfillment of duties along with, rather than instead of, the pursuit of rights, that can point us in the right direction.

 

Here is the transliterated prayer to recite before the Counting.  If you have a copy of the Reconstructionist prayerbook, Kol Haneshama, this prayer, and some additional thoughts and meditations, can be found on pages 674-683:

Baruch atah adonay eloheynu Melech ha’olam, asher kideshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu al sefirat ha’omer

Blessed are you, Eternal, our God, the sovereign of all worlds, who has made us holy with your mitzvot, and commanded us concerning the counting of the Omer

Ha-yom shtayim sh’loshim l’omer

This is the 32nd day of the Omer

 

Today’s song is “Freedom” sung by Richie Havens

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rynxqdNMry4

 

Omer Day 33

 

Lag B’Omer begins this evening, a minor festival that commemorates a variety of historical events, including the end of a plague that killed many students of Rabbi Akiva (c. 50-135 C.E.), the yahrzeit of 2nd-century mystical scholar Shimon bar Yochai, who supposedly revealed the Zohar (the key work of the Kabbalah) as he lay dying, and a Jewish military victory over Roman forces in 66 C.E.

In remembrance of Lag B’Omer, some people celebrate with picnics and bonfires. Many couples in Israel choose to get married on Lag B’Omer, and many people also decide to wait until this day to get a haircut or beard trim.

As you may remember, last year’s Lag B’Omer celebration in Israel was marred by a deadly stampede that took place during a mostly ultra-Orthodox celebration, resulting in 45 fatalities and countless injuries.

One theme that I have not focused on in my Reflections is that the period of the Counting of the Omer is traditionally observed as a time of “semi-mourning”, during which weddings and other celebrations are forbidden, and as a sign of grief, observant Jews do not cut their hair. Anthropologists have observed that many agrarian communities observe similar periods of restraint in the early spring to symbolize their hopes for the growth of their crops.

But the most often cited explanation for the Jewish practice comes from the Talmud, which tells us that during this season a plague killed thousands of Rabbi Akiva‘s students because they did not treat one another respectfully. The mourning behavior is presumably in memory of those students and their severe punishment.

According to a medieval tradition, the plague ceased on Lag B’Omer, the 33rd day of the Omer.  (The Hebrew letters lamed and gimel which make up the acronym “Lag” have the combined numerical value of 33.) As a result, Lag B’omer was designated as a festive day, interrupting the sad­ness of the Omer period for 24 hours.

From a Biblical perspective, some sages have suggested that Lag B’Omer is the day on which manna first fell from the heaven.  Manna was said to have many tastes, with its flavor depending on the individual palates of those who consumed it.  But manna was also said to have fully nourished all who partook of it.

Moses defines manna as “the bread that God has given you for eating, to sustain your lives.”  But later on, in Deuteronomy, we read that, “Not on bread alone does the human live, but on anything that God decrees” (Deut.8:3).

The Hebrew word for taste—ta’am—can also be translated in other ways, construed as  “interpretation”, “meaning” , or “discernment”.   There is a segment of medieval Jewish philosophy known as taamei hamitzvot, the study of “the reasons for the commandments.”

So perhaps we can envision the moral lessons of the Torah that descend to us as having many “tastes” (interpretations) but still nourishing our souls fully, as well…as long, of course, as we make the time to partake of them.

 

Here is the transliterated prayer to recite before the Counting.  If you have a copy of the Reconstructionist prayerbook, Kol Haneshama, this prayer, and some additional thoughts and meditations, can be found on pages 674-683:

Baruch atah adonay eloheynu Melech ha’olam, asher kideshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu al sefirat ha’omer

Blessed are you, Eternal, our God, the sovereign of all worlds, who has made us holy with your mitzvot, and commanded us concerning the counting of the Omer

Ha-yom shelosh v’sh’loshim l’omer

This is the 33rd day of the Omer

 

Today’s song is “Oh Freedom” by Harry Belafonte, was recommended by Guest DJ and Morah Extraordinaire Mary Meyerson:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JR08QzzD-VI

 

 

Omer Day 34

There are many dramatic moments throughout Exodus, but perhaps the most dramatic is when Moses smashes the Tablets upon seeing the Israelites worshipping the Golden Calf.

The last words of the Torah are, “Never again did there rise in Israel a prophet like Moses…for all the great might and awesome power that Moses displayed before the eyes of all Israel” (Deut. 34:10-12).

“Great might and awesome power” might refer to any number of events in Moses’s life, from his extraordinary battle to liberate our ancestors from Egypt to his brilliant leadership as they struggle towards The Promised Land.  But I wonder also if this is a specific reference to Moses’s annihilation of the tablets, his willingness to become so consumed by rage that he literally shattered the stony repository for what were understood to be the Words of God.   What a staggering, colossal act of rage that was, to furiously hurl to Earth what was the purest expression of Heaven.

Anger is one of the emotions that we judge most harshly in others and in ourselves.  Irrationally, we can get angry with ourselves simply for being angry, and we certainly can get angry with others for being angry at us.  Yet anger, like any other fundamental emotion, is an inescapable part of our emotional landscape, like fear, sorrow, hope, joy and grief.

Anger is perhaps most closely associated with feelings of helplessness and powerlessness—when we feel like we have no control, we often lose control.  But anger is also an indication that something of importance matters deeply to us. Who and what we become angry with tells us a great deal about what we long for and who we belong to.

Anger can certainly erupt in violent and destructive ways, but in many ways it is actually care in its most essential, sharply crystallized, form.  That is often one of the reasons that we struggle with our anger, because it reveals to us the ways in which we are incomplete, the ways in which we are vulnerable, and none of us want to be reminded of our incompleteness and vulnerability.

Long ago, Aristotle observed that anger cannot be classified as “good” or “bad” but instead needs to examined in the context of how it is expressed, to whom it is directed, how long it endures and what it is and is not able to accomplish.

As we have been discussing based on his childhood experiences, the deeply traumatized Moses surely carries with him great anger, anger that is often (although surely not always) repressed.  Frequent or chronic combustibility without question creates inestimable damage in human relationships.  But chronic avoidance of anger can create its own kind of damage.  Anger that emerges indirectly, sideways or “passive aggressively” can be just as dangerous and injurious as a blow-up—sometimes even more so.  Sometimes, when anger is thinned and contained through carefully calculated deliberation, it becomes even more dangerous than anger, itself.  “Letting it fly”, as Moses literally did with the original set of tablets, can be a relief, resulting in a release of pent-up pressure and a subsequent clearing of the air, allowing new conversations and connections to germinate.

Perhaps one of the reasons the Torah concludes that “never again did there rise in Israel a prophet like Moses” is because the intensity of one’s anger can be closely correlated with the intensity of one’s compassion, and Moses’s ability to be overcome by his fury to the extent that he destroyed the holiness of what had been inscribed by God might, on a human dimension, signify an even higher form of holiness.

 

Here is the transliterated prayer to recite before the Counting.  If you have a copy of the Reconstructionist prayerbook, Kol Haneshama, this prayer, and some additional thoughts and meditations, can be found on pages 674-683:

Baruch atah adonay eloheynu Melech ha’olam, asher kideshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu al sefirat ha’omer

Blessed are you, Eternal, our God, the sovereign of all worlds, who has made us holy with your mitzvot, and commanded us concerning the counting of the Omer

Ha-yom arba-ah v’sh’loshim l’omer

This is the 34th day of the Omer

 

Today’s song is “Hope in a Hopeless World”  by Pop Staples

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dEmYBRpIcnQ

 

 

Omer Day 35

 

In Exodus, we see that Moses’s response to God’s initial call to him embodies a paradoxical duality.  At first, when God reaches out to him from the burning bush, he answers, “Here I am.” (Ex. 3:4).  Just a few lines later, however, in response to being asked by God to free the Israelites from Egypt, he asks, “Who am I…”—Mi anochi? (Ex. 3:11).

In addition to his capacity to lose his temper, which we discussed yesterday, Moses’s capacity to acknowledge uncertainty and self-doubt is another quality that makes him most real, most human—and thus most like us.  For we all spend our lives (or, perhaps, should spend our lives) pivoting back and forth between these two shape-shifting realms—“Here I am” and “Who am I?”

Of course, this shape-shifted life is particularly true for Moses, based on what we have learned about him—born into a violent, genocidal world, experiencing the nurturance of two different mothers during his infancy, miraculously drawn from the fatal river that was supposed to drown him, growing up as an Egyptian prince, witnessing murder and becoming murderous, and spending his adult life in relation to, and in the leadership of, a tribe that he is both a part of and not a part of.

In that sense, we might say that the internal exile that he is forced to struggle through his whole life is a metaphor for the Israelites who, until Moses’s arrival, have been in exile themselves—and in exile from themselves.  His own personal traumatic history can be seen as representing the collective traumatic history of his people.

And speaking of exile—what of our own?  Wasn’t it just a few short months ago, during the month of Elul and the subsequent Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, that we made promises and commitments to ourselves and to others?  What has become of those promises and commitments that were sincerely intended to enrich and better our lives, and the lives of those near and far?  How faithfully have we made good on them?  To what extent have we been exiled, or have we exiled ourselves, from the ethically Edenic province that we so whole-heartedly pledged to inhabit on Yom, Kippur?

We are told early in Exodus that Moses does not speak well, but one thing we also eventually and consistently come to understand about Moses is that he does speak powerfully to what it is like to experience a fragmented sense of being—the same fragmented sense of being that we all experience, to some extent, and that we all deserve to become better acquainted with.

 

Here is the transliterated prayer to recite before the Counting.  If you have a copy of the Reconstructionist prayerbook, Kol Haneshama, this prayer, and some additional thoughts and meditations, can be found on pages 674-683:

Baruch atah adonay eloheynu Melech ha’olam, asher kideshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu al sefirat ha’omer

Blessed are you, Eternal, our God, the sovereign of all worlds, who has made us holy with your mitzvot, and commanded us concerning the counting of the Omer

Ha-yom chamesh v’sh’loshim l’omer

This is the 35th day of the Omer

 

Today’s song is “Gathering of Spirits”, a duet by Carrie Newcomer and Allison Kraus:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SuOfuaEW2m4

 

 

Omer Day 36

 

I hope that you all enjoyed a restful and restorative Shabbat,

We are now about two weeks away from the completion of the Counting of the Omer, so as we round the bend and head toward its conclusion, I thought it might be useful to re-visit the concept of “counting” for tonight’s Reflection.

Many of you have contributed songs to our Omer playlist, and/or commented on the songs that have been selected.  This has me thinking that maybe we can conceive of counting the Omer in the way that we count in music—not robotically, but as the greatest musicians do, with tremendous animation, attending to the flow and play of the prescribed melody, cadence and rhythm, simultaneously following and breaking the piece’s own rules and structures.

And perhaps in counting the Omer this way we can count our way into the music of our history, the music of thought and feeling, the music of the narrative that pounded our people into identity like the ocean slowly, patiently pounds sediment into limestone, like the pressure of the earth slowly, patiently pounds coal into diamonds

Counting the Omer, like musical counting, can of course lapse into a metronomic monotony, but the reality is that we still may stumble upon something that is surprising if we can remain open-minded while pursuing what seems routinized.  Staying curious and observant, the heightened alertness that we bring to the Counting of the Omer, and that the Counting of the Omer brings to us, can create a startling intimacy with our spirit, with our tradition, with God as we understand God, with others, and with what is both mortal and immortal.

And speaking of immortality, music, the most temporal of arts, is unique in that it can completely alter our experience of time, making it feel more intense, or needy, or pregnant, or suspenseful.  Music and time have cultivated a splendidly unpredictable relationship with each other—we all know how listening to or playing music elasticizes time, sometimes making hours feel like minutes, sometimes making a few seconds feel breathtakingly endless.

While we have mixed feelings about time’s passage, we also know that it is the passage of time that lends life meaning because implicit in its passing is the concept of becoming, of our present selves gathering together all of our past selves and collectively moving forward towards the future.  Or maybe that is a misguided exaggeration of our agency—perhaps Time itself silently, powerfully gathers all of our selves—past, present, and future—and carries us forward towards…towards who knows?  Well, at least towards the realization that nothing will ever be as it once was…

In any case, as we steadily and musically count our way towards the destination of Shavuot, we might want to keep in mind Kurt Vonnegut’s response to what he would like his epitaph to be:  “The only proof he needed for the existence of God was music.”

Here is the transliterated prayer to recite before the Counting.  If you have a copy of the Reconstructionist prayerbook, Kol Haneshama, this prayer, and some additional thoughts and meditations, can be found on pages 674-683:

Baruch atah adonay eloheynu Melech ha’olam, asher kideshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu al sefirat ha’omer

Blessed are you, Eternal, our God, the sovereign of all worlds, who has made us holy with your mitzvot, and commanded us concerning the counting of the Omer

Ha-yom shesha v’sh’loshim l’omer

This is the 36th day of the Omer

 

Today’s song is “One Step Beyond” by the influential Ska and Reggae musician Prince Buster (Cecil Bustamente Campbell):

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D3DAHAPLaVI

 

 

Omer Day 37

 

 

 

Just prior to his invasion of Poland, Adolph Hitler emphasized to his military commanders, “Who remembers the Armenians?”  This was a reference to the 1915 Armenian genocide, which is considered by many historians to be the first modern genocide.  His question, it is understood, was designed to reassure his co-conspirators that their horrific actions would not be censured, that the world would surely stand complacently by as another genocide took place.

He was “counting” on an ethical amnesia to allow him to proceed with world domination and systematic murder.  And for a considerable period of time, and after millions of deaths, this is exactly what happened.

There is a Chasidic saying:  “Forgetfulness leads to exile, memory to redemption”.  Memory can be our shield, our protection.  The great Russian historian of Judaism, Shimon Dubnov, who was rounded up with fellow Jews in Latvia by Nazis and murdered, was reported to have said, “Yidn, shraybt un farshraybt”, which is Yiddish for “Jews:  write and record!”

And that is often what our ancestors did.  Jewish victims of the Holocaust etched their names into walls, wrote invisible messages with their urine, buried manuscripts in tin cans so that their names, their lives, their words would somehow be remembered.

It has become a cliché to observe that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.  But what we need to remember is that simply repeating or reciting history doesn’t always result in our learning from history.  Living the comfortable lives that many of are so privileged to live, it is difficult to believe that we are able to contribute to any kind of moral transformation.  Yet we must start somewhere.

I remember hearing that the difference between a false prophet and a true prophet is that the former comfort us while the latter disturb us.  We could make a similar distinction between propaganda and moral education—the former tells us what we want to hear while the latter tells us what we need to hear.

Elie Wiesel once wrote, “Listening to a witness makes you a witness.”  Our capacity to learn from the past is weak—we are built to be forgetful.  But with Wiesel’s thought in mind, one way to strengthen our connection with the past and to mobilize memory as a safeguard  against evil is to tell the stories that need to be told.  And to tell the stories that need to be told, we need to listen to the stories that are already there to be told, to locate ourselves, to whatever extent we can, in those stories so that they speak to us in a language that can then be transmitted to others.

I have always believed that information brings knowledge, but stories bring wisdom.  Not all stories are easy to remember, however.  Sometimes we feel like we have to forget, to some extent, in order to function.  To what extent do we attempt to avoid telling a detailed history of racial terror in American history because the guilt we would feel is unbearable?  To what extent do White Supremacists insist on Holocaust Denial because the existence of genocide is simply too difficult, too painful, to imagine?

Perhaps, in the face of our fears, we should all attempt our personal version of Dubnov’s mandate:  Listen.  Record.  Write.  Share. And witness.  Every time we do so, we strengthen the Bulwark of Memory and are better able to answer the question that Hitler asked about the Armenians, and that current and future dictators will surely ask, as well.  Who remembers the victims?  We do…

Here is the transliterated prayer to recite before the Counting.  If you have a copy of the Reconstructionist prayerbook, Kol Haneshama, this prayer, and some additional thoughts and meditations, can be found on pages 674-683:

 

Baruch atah adonay eloheynu Melech ha’olam, asher kideshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu al sefirat ha’omer

 

Blessed are you, Eternal, our God, the sovereign of all worlds, who has made us holy with your mitzvot, and commanded us concerning the counting of the Omer

 

Ha-yom shevah v’sh’loshim l’omer

 

This is the 37th day of the Omer

 

Today’s song is “Asilo”, by the Uruguyan Jewish songwriter Jorge Drexler, featuring Mon Laferte:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wyJd8xYuyyQ

 

 

Omer Day 38

 

At the Burning Bush, God’s self-description is being the One who is tuned into the Israelites’ misery:  “…I have marked well the plight of My people in Egypt and have heeded their outcry because of their taskmasters; yes, I am mindful of their suffering” (Ex. 3:7).

Yesterday, we were discussing the horrors of genocide and how it is incumbent upon us to find ways to become archival witnesses as a way of preventing the perpetration of such savagery.  That is what we, as humans, can—and must—do.  But many times, in the face of barbarism and brutality, we find ourselves asking the legitimate question, “Where is God?”

And referring to the words of God above, it is certainly fair to wonder, “Glad to know that You marked our plight and heeded our outcry, but what exactly took so long for You to notice?”

It is as if God, at this moment, has suddenly become conscious of human suffering, departing from the apathy that God has previously displayed such that God can now empathically declare, “I feel your pain, I know your pain.”

With this in mind, there is a startlingly vivid Midrash that comments, “Dead flesh does not feel the scalpel, but I (God) do know their pain, which they themselves do not feel.”  Our traumatized ancestors are compared with dead flesh in the sense that they have lost the capacity to feel anything.

Perhaps that striking image leads us towards a different way of understanding God.  In this context, the divine presence can be envisioned as a repository, a psycho-spiritual storage device for disowned, outsourced consciousness when we have become psychologically inert in the face of trauma that numbs and overwhelms us.

In my work with patients who are suffering, I remain chronically far from “divine” but it sometimes occurs to me that I am most valuable when I become the emotional holding tank for experiences of theirs that have become unbearable and ungraspable, performing this role until they are slowly able to re-experience the pain that they have had to displace or repress, precisely because it was unbearable and ungraspable.  When they are able to bravely re-visit the site of trauma, the enterprise of healing can begin.

This is obviously not a process that happens overnight and the same is true for our ancestors—it took not only the departure from Egypt, but a vast desert of space and four decades of time for them to eventually come to terms with their traumatic past such that they could look forward to a liberated future.

Was it God who is responsible for this liberation?  Was it Moses?  Was it the people themselves?  There are many ways to understand the genesis of the journey that led to our freedom but one thing for certain is that it depended upon choosing to know rather than to not know—in this case, being willing to know more about the complexity of human pain, despite how painful that knowledge can be.

 

Here is the transliterated prayer to recite before the Counting.  If you have a copy of the Reconstructionist prayerbook, Kol Haneshama, this prayer, and some additional thoughts and meditations, can be found on pages 674-683:

Baruch atah adonay eloheynu Melech ha’olam, asher kideshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu al sefirat ha’omer

Blessed are you, Eternal, our God, the sovereign of all worlds, who has made us holy with your mitzvot, and commanded us concerning the counting of the Omer

Ha-yom shemoneh v’sh’loshim l’omer

This is the 38th day of the Omer

 

Today’s song is “Eyes on the Prize”, written and performed by Sweet Honey in the Rock for the movie “Freedom Song”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xbq4vDG65_A

 

 

Omer Day 39

 

In the Hebrew Bible, it is not unusual for our Prophets to express inadequacy regarding their capacity to function as the spiritual leaders that God has designated them to be.  But, as we have noted in several previous Reflections, Moses has particularly good reasons to wonder why  he has been selected, and to ask the fundamental question, “Who am I?”—Mi anochi?”

In Exodus 3:6, God announces to Moses that, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.”  But in the biblical text there nothing is said about Moses’s contact with his birth family once he has been adopted by the Egyptian princess.  We certainly don’t know much about Moses’s father, Amram, so we can only infer that God informing Moses that God is “the God of your father” has some meaning for him.

Biblical commentator Gunther Plaut has noted that one can find parallels to Moses’s personal history in Egyptian and other ancient folk memories, such as the tale of King Sargon of Akkad or of Romulus, the founder of Rome:  “Both these men were said to have been exposed as young children and marvelously saved from death; and other heroes were, like Moses, also cast into the water.”

Another scholar, Theodore Gaster, observed that the story of a hero retrieved in infancy from water may reflect the notion that we draw special qualities from water, the primordial element that is seen as the primal source of power and wisdom.

However we envision Moses’s life story—Biography?  Memoir?  Myth?  Legend?—we do know that his identity is fraught with disorder, ambiguity and uncertainty.  He was born into a world that wanted him dead and became a son to two different mothers—the psychological fissure that defines him is at times revealed and at times concealed by the narrative.

And as always, we are left with many questions.  When he is restored to his birth mother to be nursed, is his experience of being nursed the same as it was before he was put in the river? While growing up in the Egyptian palace, what does he remember of his Hebrew life?

In Exodus 2:11, just after reading that Pharaoah’s daughter “made (Moses) her son” (Ex. 2:10), the narrative leaps to, “Some time after that, when Moses had grown up, he went out to his kinsfolk and witnessed their toil.  He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsmen.”  (Ex. 2:11).  How did he know that the Hebrew slaves were part of his family?

Or perhaps the experience of witnessing human suffering firsthand catalyzed a new kind of consciousness within him.  Once he allows himself to see (or, maybe, is forced to see?) this abuse of a fellow human being, a feeling of kinship, of fraternity, ignites and awakens his conscience—the beaten slave becomes his brother and he can be seen to be acting not only in defense of the slave, but in self-defense—defending his bewildering, imperiled selfhood.

Yet the next day, when he sees two slaves in violent combat with each other and attempts to intervene, the word “brothers” or “kin” is not used at all—these two men are simply described as “Hebrews”, and the spontaneous act of identification with his kin that we had seen the day before suddenly evaporates.

There are subsequent examples of Moses’s crisis of identity throughout Exodus, and all serve to highlight the pivot between “Here I am” and “Who am I?”  Even if our own life story is not as dramatic as the one that is told about Moses, we all carry with us some version of an identity crisis, one that can be terribly painful to bear.

For me this is captured in Theodore Roethke’s poem “In a Dark Time”, which concludes with this devastating stanza:

 

Dark, dark my light, and darker my desire.

My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,   

Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?

A fallen man, I climb out of my fear.   

The mind enters itself, and God the mind,   

And one is One, free in the tearing wind.

“Which I is I?”   At times we know ourselves—at times we don’t.  Moses’s fundamental question is, “Who is the I who is being called?”

Roethke’s poem teaches us that freedom may be found in the hall of mirrors that constitutes who we are and who we think we are, even as the wind tears us apart.  Moses teaches us that our selfhood might best be seen not as a stable given, but as a perpetual question.

Here is the transliterated prayer to recite before the Counting.  If you have a copy of the Reconstructionist prayerbook, Kol Haneshama, this prayer, and some additional thoughts and meditations, can be found on pages 674-683:

Baruch atah adonay eloheynu Melech ha’olam, asher kideshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu al sefirat ha’omer

Blessed are you, Eternal, our God, the sovereign of all worlds, who has made us holy with your mitzvot, and commanded us concerning the counting of the Omer

Ha-yom tesha v’sh’loshim l’omer

This is the 39th day of the Omer

Today’s evening song is “Evening Prayer”  by Swedish singer-songwriter Jens Lenkman:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SgSC6Kh0N5s

 

 

Omer Day 40

 

The Pesach story, as we know, commences with the arrival of a new Pharoah and the expanding Jewish community.  This new Pharoah, as we read, takes note of how fruitful the Israelites had become and concludes that they are rav ve-atzum, numerous and vast, and that this represents a threat to his hegemony.

Following the chronicle, he responds by attempting to dominate them in both body and spirit, setting taskmasters over them and instituting enforced, back-breaking labor.

While the Torah refers to Pharaoh as a melekh chadash, a new king, we discussed in a previous Reflection that this need not be taken literally.  Instead, some scholars aver that it was actually the same Pharoah as the one who welcomed Joseph and his family with great hospitality, but it was as if he was a new king in that he violated his prior relationship with the Children of Israel and became the leader who forgot the depth of his connection and indebtedness, “who did not know Joseph.”

Pharoah, old or new, betrayed his prior relationship with Joseph and acted as if his closest, most trusted advisor was now nothing more than a representative of, and indistinguishable from, a growing population of faceless Israelites whom he did not value, who merged anonymously into a fearsome, menacing mass.

There is a story that I recall from reading an interview with one of the Nazi concentration camp commandants, during which he was asked, “Why did you bother tattooing numbers onto the prisoners’ arms? You knew that you were going to murder them, why take the time to identify them?”  His response was that the numbers were not designed to identify the inmates, but to, in a sense, “de-identify” them, to transform them from individuals, with dignity and worth, into nameless digits.  This process, he coolly observed, made it easier for his guards to perpetrate the inhumane atrocities that ensued.

Isn’t it disturbingly true that each of can be vulnerable to acting like Pharoah in the sense that we tend to anonymize characterless clumps of people and “de-identify” them, particularly when we feel threatened and are afraid of being overcome?

In Judaism, we are taught that each of us is created be-tzelem Elohim, in the image of God.  But are we taking the time to contemplate and envision the worth of every individual when we classify others into the countless convenient categories that we summon, in a maladaptive effort to protect ourselves?

Think of how smoothly our seamless sobriquets—self-identified or identified by others—set us on a path of erasing individuality and make it easier for us to reduce the complexity of complex issues, as well as the complexity of the human predicament, itself:  “Pro-Life”, “Pro-Choice”, “The Caravan”, “Anti-Vaxxers”, “Refugees”, “LGBTQ”, “Insurrectionists”, “Immigrants”, “The Poor”, “Cops”—the list is endless.  And so recently, of course, as we continue to reel from the devastating carnage resulting from gun violence, “Gun Rights Advocates” and “Gun Control Advocates”.

Rabbi Shai Held writes that, “Jewish sources insist that God cherishes human beings not just as faceless representatives of a privileged species but as individuals:  God loves us in all of our singularity and uniqueness.”

As we count the Omer, we might try to understand and monitor our tendency to “discount” other people, our susceptibility to examining a crowd and blurring them into an indistinguishable, minatory multitude.  We all are prone to relying on our internal “eyes of Pharoah” with all of their narrow, and ultimately destructive, limitations.

Transcending our fear-based myopia and gazing at our fellow human beings through more gentle, generous, God-like eyes not only might deepen our sense of liberation, but simultaneously herald a farther-reaching liberation for all.

 

Here is the transliterated prayer to recite before the Counting.  If you have a copy of the Reconstructionist prayerbook, Kol Haneshama, this prayer, and some additional thoughts and meditations, can be found on pages 674-683:

 

Baruch atah adonay eloheynu Melech ha’olam, asher kideshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu al sefirat ha’omer

 

Blessed are you, Eternal, our God, the sovereign of all worlds, who has made us holy with your mitzvot, and commanded us concerning the counting of the Omer

 

Ha-yom arba’im yamim l’omer

 

This is the 40th day of the Omer

 

Today’s song is “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” performed by the incomparable Nina Simone:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0IlSP9vVpMQ

 

 

Omer Day 41

I have met with countless adolescent patients over the years whose high schools require them to do community service as part of their graduation requirements.  Many complete these hours willingly, even happily, and would volunteer whether or not they were expected to do so to earn their diploma.  But some have protested to me that they feel hypocritical making good on this commitment.  While their reasoning may at least partially be an attempt to wriggle out of what feels like an onerous or unnecessary responsibility, I have spoken with quite a few who at least try to defend their displeasure from a moral perspective.

Although most have probably not read Kant, they may be echoing the philosopher’s belief that moral motive brings moral worth to an act.  So when these young men and women (sometimes petulantly) observe that, “I don’t really want to do this, I’m only participating because it is required of me and/or because it looks good on my college application”, they are suggesting that their hypocrisy dissolves any merit that would be associated with their actions.

Of course, by adopting this stance, they are focusing more on being of service to themselves than on being of service to others.  Their (alleged) discomfort with being hypocritical, at least at this stage in their lives, supersedes the discomfort of the recipients of their ministrations—the individuals, animals, agencies, or environments that will indeed benefit from their efforts, whether these efforts feel sincere or not.

In addition, these developing young adults are, for now, neglecting the possibility that they might discover themselves (and perhaps a hitherto undiscovered interest in or passion for community service) through putting others first.

My point is that hypocrisy is part of human nature and deserves to be considered thoughtfully rather than ferociously rooted out.  If I suggested to you that white Supremacists deserve our moral praise and admiration because their antipathy for people of color is firm, resolute and without any ambivalence, you would most likely vehemently disagree.  Words and actions are not made good simply by the sincerity with which they are performed.

So many of our Biblical ancestors betray considerable hypocrisy in their actions.  How many of us have wrestled with Abraham’s hypocrisy when it came to his willingness to sacrifice  Isaac?  What about murderous Moses?

It is certainly fine for us to aspire towards as high a level of authenticity, of self-congruence, as possible, and to expect that of others, but instantly becoming enraged and outraged when we confront hypocrisy in ourselves and in others makes it difficult to value differences, to support diversity, to live with each other in this complicated world.

Yesterday’s Reflection on the ways in which we succumb to both internal and societal polarization brought to mind a poem by one of my favorite writers, our Poet Laureate, Joy Harjo.  In “Without”, she tenderly but unreservedly addresses the potential that we all carry within us for dichotomous, prejudicial, hypocritical thinking, but also maintains hope that we can transcend it:

The world will keep trudging through time without us

When we lift from the story contest to fly home

We will be as falling stars to those watching from the edge

Of grief and heartbreak

Maybe then we will see the design of the two-minded creature

And know why half the world fights righteously for greedy masters

And the other half is nailing it all back together

Through the smoke of cooking fires, lovers’ trysts, and endless

Human industry—

Maybe then, beloved rascal

We will find each other again in the timeless weave of breathing

We will sit under the trees in the shadow of earth sorrows

Watch hyenas drink rain, and laugh.

In Harjo’s words, we are all “two-minded creatures”, in conflict within ourselves and with others, but perhaps we can seek out the “beloved rascal” inside of us and inside our fellow two-minded creatures and “find each other again in the timeless weave of breathing”, the breath of “grief and heartbreak”.  After all, as she notes at the very beginning, “The world will keep trudging through time without us.”

Here is the transliterated prayer to recite before the Counting.  If you have a copy of the Reconstructionist prayerbook, Kol Haneshama, this prayer, and some additional thoughts and meditations, can be found on pages 674-683:

Baruch atah adonay eloheynu Melech ha’olam, asher kideshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu al sefirat ha’omer

Blessed are you, Eternal, our God, the sovereign of all worlds, who has made us holy with your mitzvot, and commanded us concerning the counting of the Omer

Ha-yom echad v’arba’im yamim l’omer

This is the 41st day of the Omer

 

Today’s song is “Yeh, Yeh” by Cuban percussionist Mongo Santamaria:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vWF8UOhLgdk