Chodesh tov: a good and sweet new month to you!
Today we enter the month of Cheshvan, a month that is unique because it contains no Jewish holidays at all. (Except for Shabbat, of course.) After the spiritual marathon of Tisha b'Av and Elul and the Days of Awe and Sukkot and Hoshana Rabbah and Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, now we get some downtime. Some quiet time. Time to rest: in Hebrew, לנוח / lanuach. We've done all of our spiritual work, and now we get to take a break. Right?
Well, not exactly.
When we finish the Days of Awe, we might imagine that the work is over. But I want to posit that the work of teshuvah, of turning ourselves in the right direction, isn't something we ever "complete"... and that Torah's been giving us hints about that, if we know where to look.
Last week we began the Torah again, with Bereshit, the first portion in the book of Genesis. The creation of the cosmos, "and God saw that it was good," the forming of an earthling from earth. Last week's Torah portion also contains the story of Cain and Hevel, the first sibling rivalry in our story. The two bring offerings to God. Hevel brings sheep, and Cain brings fruits of the soil, and God is pleased with the sheep but not with Cain's offering. Cain's face falls, and God says to him, "Why are you distressed?"
It's an odd moment. Surely an all-knowing God understands perfectly well why Cain is upset. This is not rocket science. Two brothers make gifts for their Parent, who admires one gift and pointedly ignores the other one?! Of course Cain feels unappreciated. This is basic human nature. How can it be that God doesn't understand?
The commentator known as the Radak says: God asked this rhetorical question not because God didn't understand Cain's emotions, but because God wanted to spur Cain to self-reflection. God, says the Radak, wanted to teach Cain how to do the work of teshuvah, repentance and return. Imagine if Cain had been able to receive that lesson. Imagine if Cain had had a trusted rabbi or spiritual director with whom he could have done his inner work, seeking to find the presence of God even in his disappointment. But that's not how the story goes. He misses the opportunity for teshuvah, and commits the first murder instead.
That was last week. This week, we read that God sees that humanity is wicked, and God decides to wipe out humanity and start over. But one person finds favor with God: Noach, whose name comes from that root לנוח, "to rest."
And God tells Noah: make yourself an ark out of gopher wood, and cover it over with pitch: "וְכָֽפַרְתָּ֥ אֹתָ֛הּ מִבַּ֥יִת וּמִח֖וּץ בַּכֹּֽפֶר / v'kafarta otah mibeit u-michutz bakofer." Interesting thing about the words "cover" and "pitch:" they share a root with כפרה / kapparah, atonement. (As in Yom Kippur.) It doesn't come through in translation, but the Hebrew reveals that this instruction to build a boat seems to be also implicitly saying something about atonement.
Rashi seizes on that. Why, he asks, did God choose to save Noah by asking him to build an ark? And he answers: because over the 120 years it would take to build the ark, people would stop and say, "What are you doing and why are you doing it?" And Noah would be in a position to tell them that God intended to wipe out humanity for our wickedness. Then the people would make teshuvah, and then the Flood wouldn't have to happen. God wanted humanity to make teshuvah, and once again, we missed the message.
The invitation to make teshuvah is always open. The invitation to discernment, to inner work, to recognizing our patterns and changing them, is always open. And to underscore that message, last week's Torah portion and this week's Torah portion both remind us: the path of teshuvah was open to Cain, and it was open for the people of Noah's day, and it's open now.
Even if we spent the High Holiday season making teshuvah with all our might, the work isn't complete. We made the teshuvah we were able to make: we pushed ourselves as far as we could to become the better selves we know we're always called to be. But that was so last week. What teshuvah do we need to make now, building on the work we did before?
The word kapparah (atonement) implies covering-over, as Noach covered-over the ark with the covering of pitch. What kapparah hasn't worked for you yet? Where are the places where you still feel as though your mis-steps are exposed? What are the tender places in your heart and soul that need to be lovingly sealed and made safe? This week's Torah portion comes to remind us that we still have a chance to do this work. Will we be wiser than the generation of Noah? Will we hear Torah's call to make teshuvah now with all that we are?
Here's the thing: as long as we live, our work isn't done. I don't know whether that sounds to you like a blessing or a curse. But I mean it as a blessing. Because it's never too late. Because we can always be growing. Because we can always choose to be better.
May this Shabbat Noach be a Shabbat of real menuchah, which is Noah's namesake, and peace, a foretaste of the world to come. And when we emerge into the new week tonight at havdalah, may we be strengthened in our readiness to always be doing the work of teshuvah, and through that work, may our hearts and souls find the kapparah that we most seek.
I'm honored and delighted this week to be at Kol HaNeshama in Sarasota, Florida, visiting my dear friend Rabbi Jennifer Singer who blogs at SRQ Jew. This is the d'var Torah I offered there for Shabbat Noach -- which I share with deep gratitude to Rabbi David Markus for sparking these insights.
[Cross-posted at Hatewatch.]
Torch-bearing white nationalists led by racist "alt-right" figure Richard Spencer once again marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, last weekend, in a repeat of their appearance on August 11, when a similar polo-shirt-bedecked crowd carried tiki torches to the University of Virginia, chanting a variety of slogans and far-right catchphrases.
“You Will Not Replace Us!” they shouted in unison Saturday. Later, they sang a rendition of the adopted Confederate anthem, “Dixie,” and also chanted, “Russia is Our Friend!” and “The South Will Rise Again!”
The chants even included an odd attack on a fantasy fiction character: “Harry Potter is Not Real!”
The rally occurred eight weeks after the August “Unite the Right” event that turned into a murderous melee the next day when an alt-right protester rammed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one person and maiming numerous others.
Unlike the earlier torch-bearing rally, however, which saw an estimated 1,000 marchers with torches marching through the city, Saturday’s event only drew an estimated 40 to 50 participants.
As with the earlier rally, however, the marching white nationalists shouted a variety of chants, all of them with very particular meanings to their movement. They enjoy wide circulation within the alt-right movement, particularly at online white-nationalist forums as well as chat sites like 4chan, but are unfamiliar to most of the general public.
Here’s what they mean, beginning with the chants from the August 11 march on the Virginia campus:
- “You Will Not Replace Us!” This slogan was coined from a statement by Nathan Damigo, founder of the white-nationalist campus group Identity Evropa, who retorted to an anti-Donald Trump “He will not divide us” campaign by actor Shia LeBeouf on social media: “Shia LeBeouf, you will not replace us with your globalism.” The chant is closely related to the white-nationalist “White Genocide” meme, reflective of their fears that white people and white culture are under attack from multiculturalism and nonwhite races. According to the Anti-Defamation League, the slogan began appearing on white-nationalist fliers and banners in May, and has spread widely since then. (At times during the first Charlottesville march, the chant morphed into “Jews Will Not Replace Us!”)
- “Blood and Soil!” Possibly the most disturbing of all the chants heard in Charlottesville, this is the English rendition of Nazi Germany’s most fervent chant, “Blut und Boden!” Originally devised as a slogan of 19th-century German nationalists and popularized by Nazi ideologue Richard Walter Darre, the phrase is intended to invoke patriotic identification with native national identity, and built on a foundation of virulent anti-Semitism and racism. It later became a key component of Adolf Hitler’s “Lebensraum” program, seeking to expand territories occupied by Germans, that was a major factor in the Holocaust. The slogan has been adopted by the alt-right, particularly its openly neo-Nazi element, to emphasize its own nativist and eliminationist agenda.
- “White Lives Matter!” Ostensibly a retort to the anti-police-violence movement Black Lives Matter, this catchphrase very quickly morphed into both a slogan and the name of an outright white-supremacist movement aimed at attacking black civil rights, ostensibly “dedicated to promotion of the white race and taking positive action as a united voice against issues facing our race.” Numerous neo-Nazi groups around the country have reshaped themselves under the “WLM” banner, and the movement was designated a hate group in 2017.
- “Hail Trump!” This catchphrase needs little explanation, but its presence as a marching chant is significant. Donald Trump is a hero to the alt-right, where some leading figures refer to him as “Glorious Leader” and similar superlatives, in large part because he mimics their agenda and talking points, and has on numerous occasions shied away from denouncing white nationalists, including after Charlottesville. Many of the Charlottesville marchers have also worn Trump’s trademark “Make America Great Again” ball caps.
At Saturday’s rally, the gathering again chanted “You Will Not Replace Us.” The rallygoers also joined together in singing a rendition of “Dixie”, the unofficial anthem of the Confederacy, reflecting their affiliations with the far-right neo-Confederate movement (as well as the fact that the rally occurred at the base of the statue of General Robert E. Lee, slated for removal by Charlottesville city officials, the focus of the alt-right protests). Soon a variety of other chants were heard:
- “Russia Is Our Friend!” The alt-right has been unabashed in its open admiration of Russia’s authoritarian strongman president, Vladimir Putin, and the nationalist agenda he has promoted both in Europe and in the United States. A number of alt-right figures, including Spencer, have well-documented connections to the Russian regime, which also has played a major role in underwriting far-right movements in Europe. It later emerged after the 2016 election that Russia’s propaganda machine had a powerfully symbiotic relationship with the alt-right in spreading its ideology and memes through social media during the campaign.
- “The South Will Rise Again!” Again reflective of the alt-right’s neo-Confederate sympathies, this slogan dates back to the post-Civil War period, when the apologist “Lost Cause” revision of the war’s history was in full swing, leading to the widespread (and incorrect) belief that the war was primarily about “states rights” rather than slavery; that same movement, mostly at the turn of the 19th century, also was responsible for the construction of many of the same Confederate monuments that are now the focus of much of the alt-right recent agitation. The “Lost Cause” ideology remains popular with neo-Confederates.
- “Harry Potter Isn’t Real!” This seemingly odd chant, which in many ways reflects the alt-right’s fluency in popular culture, is directed at white nationalists’ enmity towards multiculturalism, since the underlying thesis of J.K. Rowling’s massively popular youth-fantasy series is about combating prejudice, racial and otherwise. The Potter books are frequently attacked at alt-right online forums and castigated for ostensibly brainwashing schoolchildren. Moreover, Rowling herself has been notably active on social media, attacking both the alt-right and politicians associated with it, including Donald Trump.
- “We Will Be Back!” Another fairly self-explanatory chant — and possibly the most chilling of them all.
The good folks at the the Forward have started up a new series they're calling Rabbi Roundtable. They chose 17 rabbis from across the denominational spectrum, and they're posing questions to us and sharing our answers.
The first one of these has just gone live, and the question they chose to ask this week is, "What is the biggest threat facing the Jewish people today?" Here are our answers: Rabbi Roundtable / What's the Biggest Threat to the Jewish People? Deep thanks to the editors at the Forward for including me as a leading voice of Jewish Renewal.
...This is our time to rest, like bulbs cradled in the embrace of the earth. It’s time to slow our breathing, like the shavasana pose that ends many yoga classes. We’ve been pouring out our hearts: now it’s time to wait and see what flows in to replenish us. Like the trees, like the bulbs, our souls need to lie fallow....
That's from my latest essay for The Wisdom Daily.
Read the whole thing: Why the stillness after the wave of Jewish holidays is so important.
One of the great joys of being an unofficial ambassador for Jewish Renewal is getting invited to share spiritual technologies that have deeply shaped my life and my rabbinate with new communities that may not yet have experienced them.
Over the weekend of November 3-5, Rabbi David Markus and I will be scholars-in-residence at Temple B'nai Chaim in Georgetown, Connecticut!
We'll be there over the weekend of parashat Vayera (the Torah portion is named after its first word, "And God appeared" or, more broadly "And God caused Abraham to see") so we've framed our introduction to Jewish Renewal through the lens of vision.
We'll be co-leading a musical, poetic, uplifting Kabbalat Shabbat service on Friday night; offering a Torah study on Shabbat morning; gathering with the community at 5pm for se'udat shlishit (the "third meal" of Shabbat, where we'll "dine" on poetry and song themed around yearning at that most poignant time of the week), havdalah, and some learning about angels in Jewish tradition. On Sunday morning we'll offer two short programs on "spirituality on the go" and on the mysticism of ordinary mitzvot.
Here's the full schedule for our weekend, and here's a Facebook event where you can indicate if you're coming. If you're in or near Connecticut and are able to join us, we'd love to see you there!
Today we shift from praying for dew to praying for rain, and as we made that shift, something occurred to me.
We say a special prayer for rain today on Shemini Atzeret, launching our season of asking God for rain in the daily amidah. (At Pesach, we say a special prayer for dew, launching our season of asking God instead for dew.)
No matter where in the world we live, between Pesach and Shemini Atzeret Jews don't pray for rain. Why? Because rain is an impossibility in the Middle East during the summer, and our tradition teaches us that we don't pray for the impossible. We don't ask God for what's just plain not possible. That would make a mockery of our prayer. Since rain can't fall in Jerusalem at that season, we don't ask for it. We ask for dew, instead: a form of abundance that's actually available at that time of year.
And yet I can't help noticing that we pray for peace all year long, on Shabbat and weekdays and festivals alike. On weekdays, when we're comfortable making requests of God, we pray for wisdom, and forgiveness, and abundance, and justice. No matter what day it is, we pray for healing for our broken hearts and our fallible bodies. Every night we pray for God's presence to accompany us and to spread a sukkah of peace over us while we sleep.
We don't pray for the impossible. Which must mean that all of those things -- peace and wisdom, forgiveness and abundance, justice and healing, God's presence with us and within us -- are possible, always.
On this day of holy pausing, may we be blessed with the felt sense that the things for which we most fervently pray are always already within our grasp.
הושע הא / Hosha na, please save!
For the sake of Acting in good faith
For the sake of Boundaries and their maintenance
For the sake of Choosing to see clearly
For the sake of Directly naming what is broken
For the sake of Ending unconscious patterns
For the sake of Finding strength to speak
For the sake of Growth and transformation
For the sake of Holding firm to principle
For the sake of Integrity in all things
For the sake of Justice in every moment
For the sake of Keeping ourselves honest
For the sake of Love and awe in equal measure
For the sake of Making real teshuvah
For the sake of Noticing when we're culpable
For the sake of Opening ourselves to becoming
For the sake of Power wielded justly
For the sake of Questioning and discernment
For the sake of Repairing what we've damaged
For the sake of Standing in our truth
For the sake of Taking responsibility
For the sake of Understanding our own choices
For the sake of Victims of abuse, believed and honored
For the sake of Walking away from toxicity
For the sake of eXamining our behavior
For the sake of Yin and yang in balance
For the sake of Zeal to do what's right, not just what's easy:
הושע הא / Hosha na, please save!
Today -- the seventh day of Sukkot -- is also a minor festival in its own right, called Hoshana Rabbah. On this day it's customary to recite alphabetical acrostic prayers called hoshanot.
This is the hoshana that I most needed to pray this year. May its words ascend on high; may its implications sink deep into our hearts and shape our actions as we move into the new year.
For those who are interested, here is another contemporary Hoshana for Healing and Consolation by Rabbi Dr. Dalia Marx, published at the Open Siddur project in Hebrew and in English translation.
Chag sameach / a joyous festival to all.