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Nov. 6 Havurah Happenings

Oct. 30 Havurah Happenings

We All Belong Here

Ken Lerner

 

        Do you feel connected to Havurah?  Have you found a space for yourself here?  Or do you wonder about your place in it all, feel at a distance from the activities and workings of the congregation, or struggle with how close you want to connect? We are in a period of growth that presents a dilemma of how to sustain our welcoming community and culture while at the same time being mindful that our size alone can create distance and disconnection.

        Whether you feel connected or distant, we have each chosen to be part of this amazing community for a variety of reasons (Jewish spirituality, social conscience and activism, education and personal growth, providing a nurturing Jewish home for our children, etc.). But being in community can also be daunting if connection is lacking and presents a barrier to belonging. Our size can easily lead some to feel anonymous or isolated. It is really up to each of us to be generous with our presence, to make an effort (as Rabbi Benjamin noted during the High Holidays) to mingle and make small talk. After all, it is a fact that generosity makes people happier. Only we together can preserve and nurture a spirit of welcoming and inclusion by reaching out to those with whom we are less familiar with genuine curiosity and openness.

        Over the next month or two, our Welcoming Committee will be phasing in new name tags for each member.  It is our hope that everyone will use these as a way to ease introductions and conversation, and expand our sense of shared community. Look for more information about this in the coming weeks.

        Another way to defeat a sense of isolation is to get involved at some level, and take a small degree of ownership for the success of Havurah. With size comes a danger that some might think that there are plenty of other people to do what has to be done. But at our core we are a participatory congregation that depends on the active engagement of all our members. There are many committees and activities to connect with, to offer your thoughts and energy, or just to make new friends who may share a common vision. Volunteering is also associated with less depression, more life satisfaction and greater well-being. Our growing presence in Portland itself provides a greater degree of agency within the larger Jewish community, and Portland itself, to affect positive social change. Maybe this is where your interests lay. Or it can be as simple as helping set up or clean up an activity.

        Beginning soon Havurah will initiate some visioning exercises that will include an effort to engage the entire congregation in conversation. We will begin the process of creating a Brit Kehilla, or community covenant, with the aim of clearly expressing our values, addressing best practices in our interactions with one another, and setting out clear mutual expectations between the congregation and our members. Look for news about this process in the coming weeks.

        Another visioning effort will be the development of a long range plan that will address our growth and future needs over the next five years. It will take everyone’s input to arrive at a well thought out plan that provides clarity and direction for the future of our community.  If you have any interest in helping to develop these visioning efforts, please let Adela know of your interest.

        I believe that our growth is a testament to how many people find comfort and meaning in this space. May this coming year instill in us all the commitment to preserve the vitality of our congregation with our personal engagement as we also accommodate the blessings of our growth. You will find yourself happier for it.

 

 

Amidst Fear, Building Refuge

Rabbi Benjamin on Kol Nidre 5780

           

            One of the stories about Martin Luther King Jr. that has impacted me most happened around his kitchen table. It was January of 1956, the Montgomery bus boycott was ramping up and King was receiving regular threats on his life. One night, after a long day of organizing, he arrived home very late and the phone rang. A nasty voice on the other end said: "Leave Montgomery immediately if you have no wish to die." Dr. King hung up the phone, trembling, put on a pot of coffee and sat down at the table.

            This is how he describes the next moments:

I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me, I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had all but gone, I decided to take my problem to God. With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud.

The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. "I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I've come to the point where I can't face it alone.”

At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced God before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: "Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.”

 

            I have drawn great solace from this story. It is heartening for me to hear about legendary, courageous leaders also being afraid. And I love that King didn’t deny the fear or fight it off. He named it. He met it, right there at his kitchen table. The other crucial detail for me is that the assurance he received wasn’t that God would protect him from harm. It was simply that God would be by his side. In the face of terror, fearing for his life, he felt a sense that he would not be alone. And that enabled him to go on.

 

            I am speaking tonight about fear, and how we might also meet it with faith and wisdom. And amidst it, or even through it, find our way together to courage and safety.

 

            I imagine that most of us are feeling, on a collective level, more fear than we have before. What does safety and security look like in the face of this? Both physically, as well as emotionally and spiritually, how are we to respond to fearful times?

            After the September 11 attacks, a rabbi I knew gave a sermon in which he told his community: Don’t be afraid. It was a powerful message. But it is not the message I am going to give. And that is because I do not think that telling someone, or telling ourselves, not to be afraid is necessarily helpful. In my experience denying fear does not make it go away. It in fact inhibits us from being able to respond in ways that help us. Feeling fear can be an appropriate cue for us to pay attention, to reach out to others, to take action or otherwise respond to our situation. By meeting fear intentionally and mindfully, we can help one another know safety even in the midst of fear.

 

            These holidays are called Yamim Nora’im, the Days of Awe. That word “awe,” though — Yirah, with its adjective Nora — is also associated with fear. As in the “fear of God.” In general we avoid that translation in the progressive world, and for good reason. We do not view fear-based spirituality as a healthy model. But there is a weight to the words Nora and Yirah that is not necessarily conveyed by “awe.” Another translation I have appreciated is the word “apprehension.” Both in the sense of a deep grasp or understanding of what is happening, as well an awareness of the seriousness and potential consequences of a given moment.

            Tomorrow we will chant Unetaneh Tokef, as we did on Rosh Hashanah. In the prayer we call this is “a day filled with awe and trembling” — that this day is nora, and also ayom, that second word explicitly connoting dread or terror. What is it that we might be so afraid of? Well, the familiar poetry of Unetaneh Tokef follows: “Who shall live and who shall die? Who in the fullness of years and who before their time?” The prayer goes on: “We are fragile as pottery, so easily shattered, like the grass that withers, like the flower that fades…” A catalyst for the awe and trembling is this awareness that we, like all life, will pass away.

            In this vein, Yom Kippur is often called “a rehearsal for our death.” But for the rabbis this was not a morose exercise. It was meant to wake us up more fully to our lives.

            In the midst of world events right now, these verses feel especially powerful. I think in particular of marginalized communities around the world who are facing increased threats to their livelihood and well being. And of course of the Jewish Community, as we turn the page on a year in which we suffered the Tree of Life and Chabad of Poway attacks. The fragility of life is quite present. But I share this background about the Yamim Nora’im to reveal that, from the tradition’s perspective, there is benefit in beholding fear directly. A sense that by seeing it and naming it we can channel it toward being a life-affirming force.

            “While generally devalued in our culture,” writes therapist and author Miriam Greenspan, “…emotions [such as fear] have a wisdom that is essential to the work of healing and transformation on both individual and collective levels.” In her book, Healing through the Dark Emotions, Greenspan explores the potential inherent in such emotions: in particular, fear, grief, and despair. While the common reaction, for understandable reasons, is to run from or repress them, she instructs that to do so is to make ourselves, and those around us, more vulnerable to their negative impacts. We can instead get to know “the contours of our fear” and the ways in which we need to “experience it authentically [and] speak about it openly.” Even with children, when they are afraid, she advises against telling them, “There’s nothing to be afraid of. It’s okay.” Rather, she suggests, “We might put our arms around them and say, ‘It’s okay to be scared when scary things happen. Being aware of fear makes you stronger than pretending you don't feel it. Let’s see if we can find something to do that would make you feel better.”

            This is sound advice for adults as well. Recognizing and investigating our fear is one of the most courageous and effective approaches we can take.

            Before I go further, I want to clearly state that these are not teachings that apply the same in every instance. We are each different, and even as individuals our capacity to encounter fear varies depending on the situation and the context of our lives. I also want to underscore the distinction between mindfully feeling fear and becoming stuck in or overwhelmed by fear. For Greenspan, the mindful approach is meant to free us from being stuck or overwhelmed. But at times it is just too much, and we simply need to locate support and take care of ourselves. As always, I share these teachings in hopes that we will each hear them and derive benefit in our own ways. I do trust that by naming and attending to our fear, we suffer from it less and are able to act in wiser and more courageous fashion. But we each need to discern what is possible and appropriate in any given moment.

            With that in mind, Greenspan begins by affirming fear’s value. “Think of fear,” she writes, “not as a weakness but as information, a signal of unsafety, a usable energy, and a way of knowing.” She proposes that we begin simply by letting fear be, noticing the urge to run from it or to act on it quickly. From there we can tune into the felt sense of fear in our body, noticing the energy of it without focusing on the particular explanation we might associate with it. Then we contextualize it, inquiring about the nature of it and what it might be trying to tell us. Through this mindful witness, we are then able to discern how to ask for help and take appropriate action.

            She also offers the tool of prayer. For instance, simple phrases such as, “May I accept my fear” and “Let…me use [my fear] to help all beings who suffer” can be a way for us to name the truth of our experience, and our yearning to feel protected, as well as incline our minds toward others’ well being. You might experiment with these approaches as fear arises. Simply noticing, naming, gently wishing well for yourself and others. 

            In a sense what I am saying is that, in the presence of fear, we can begin simply  by saying, Hineini — I am here, or Hineinu — Here we are.

            On Rosh Hashanah, we explored a few of the Hineini moments in Torah. In the spirit of our theme for the year we have considered what it means for us to say Hineinu: Here we are. One of the points I made on Erev Rosh Hashanah, in saying Hineinu to our past, is that Hineini-saying moments are often uncomfortable. We would rather not be in them, and it takes great dedication to remain present amidst them.

            There are also moments of Hineini-saying that are down-right terrifying.

            One of those is when God calls to Moses at the burning bush. Hineini, Moses answers. And God tells him to return to Pharaoh and demand that he let the people go. Imagine how terrified Moses must have been by that deployment. He is being asked to return to the place from which he fled for his life. A place of cruelty and torture. Understandably, Moses asks for God’s name. He wants to know exactly what he is getting into here. Wait, you’re giving me this mission, but what does that mean? Who are you? What can you provide for me? What assurances can you give me?

            God’s answer: “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh — I Will Be What I Will Be.”

            You want to know my name? Sorry. I don’t even know my name. The  closest I can get is, Becoming. That is my name. My essence — which is to say, the nature of Reality — is in flux. I cannot tell you exactly what you are getting into here. I cannot give you a picture of precisely what will happen.

            Saying Hineini doesn’t necessarily give us answers. It does not make life unfold in expected fashion. To say Hineini often means stepping out into the unknown. It necessitates a willingness to be vulnerable.

            But then God adds: Eyheh imakh — I will be with you. And, I will send your brother Aaron to meet you. To say Hineini is to place ourselves in relationship. When we truly say it, we remind ourselves that we are not alone.

            We are witnessing the continued rise of white nationalism, cruel anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric, genuine threats to democracy and freedom, and a global climate crisis which has yet to be heeded by those with the most power to enact change. Who would sign up for this moment? Are we truly supposed to convince ourselves not to be afraid? The young leaders of the climate justice movement are administering a powerful message. Greta Thunberg fires this piercing challenge: “Adults keep saying we owe it to the young people to give them hope. But I don’t want your hope, I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic, I want you to feel the fear I feel every day.”

            Fear is an appropriate response to this moment. And what I draw from the burning bush episode is that we can utilize fear as a portal through which to find one another, to locate ourselves in kinship with each other. I am not saying that fear is a blessing. I am saying: Hineinu. This is the moment in which we find ourselves.  It is real. I am saying that it is possible for us to meet fear in a way that helps us not succumb to it, and even supports our acting powerfully from it. And that one of the main ways in which we can find security amidst vulnerability is through joining with one another.

            Bend the Arc, a Jewish organization doing amazing work right now on behalf of communities under attack, posts a simple slogan that feels to me like a rallying cry: “Our safety lies in solidarity.” It is understandable that after Pittsburgh and Poway many Jews have the urge to wall ourselves off. And I am not suggesting that heightened security is unwise. I think the way in which we are approaching things at Havurah, through careful discernment and community participation, is appropriate and wise. But as Rabbi Joshua Lesser offered at the Reconstructing Judaism convention last November: “Rather than just wall ourselves off, we must invest at least as much in our spiritual resilience and building connections with other communities walking similar paths.” Exactly. Whatever security measures we take on the physical plane, we must at least match them if not far exceed them in the realm of developing spiritual tools in response and, most vitally, building relationships with other communities also under threat. 

            The historian Timothy Snyder, in his book, On Tyranny, drives home this point as well. One of his lessons in combatting fascism, gleaned from the twentieth century, is, “Make eye contact and small talk.” He explains: “This is not just polite. It is part of being a citizen and a responsible member of society.” Speaking of various tyrannical regimes of the twentieth century, Snyder writes that, “A smile, a handshake, or a word of greeting—banal gestures in a normal situation—took on great significance…You might not be sure, today or tomorrow, who feels threatened in the United States. But if you affirm everyone, you can be sure that certain people will feel better.”

            He also offers this: “For resistance to succeed, two boundaries must be crossed. First, ideas about change must engage people of various backgrounds who do not agree about everything. Second, people must find themselves in places that are not their homes, and among groups who were not previously their friends.”

            What Snyder is pointing out is that if we simply hunker down in our comfortable environments, we will not be building bridges of trust and understanding that will be there to support us and others when we need them. My friend Rabbi Melissa Weintraub, co-founder of Encounter, an organization which has brought thousands of Jewish leaders and emerging Jewish leaders across the Green Line to hear directly from Palestinian citizens, was asked early on in her work why she did what she was doing with prospects for peace so grim. Her response was along the lines of, “If the Middle East goes up in flames tomorrow, God forbid, we will need these relationships more than ever.” I think about that every time I connect with someone whose history or experience is very different from mine, someone whose story I might not immediately understand. And I think, we just built, or reinforced, a bridge that will make each of us, and each of our communities, safer one day.

 

            As I have reflected on these ideas, I have returned again and again to a line from Psalm 31: In You, God, I take refuge. The notion of refuge is beautiful to me, and captures much of what I am trying to name here. The aspiration to find refuge amidst that which is threatening or frightening.           

            Tara Brach, in her book True Refuge, writes about the distinction between the kinds of refuge that support our well-being and security and those we think protect us but don’t. “False refuges,” she calls them. She writes. “They can’t save us from what we most fear, the pain of loss and separation.” What will help us is “a refuge that is vast enough to embrace our most profound experience of suffering.” In other words, true refuge doesn’t block out fear. It involves creating a container of resilience and companionship through which we can live our lives wholeheartedly even with fear present.

            When we utilize these resources and approaches, emotions can undergo what Miriam Greenspan calls “alchemy.” As she puts it, “The lead of suffering transforms into the gold of spiritual power.” Each of the dark emotions, when attended to mindfully and with care, can nurture something healthy, connecting, and empowering. In her framework, the alchemy is: grief to gratitude, despair to faith, and fear to joy.

            Why joy? Or rather, how joy? “It’s about living fully with fear,” she writes. “Joy is what we find when we act with our fear for the sake of life. Mindful fear moves us to act with courage and loving-kindness, in the service of ourselves and others.”

            Perhaps the joy is about a certain soft spot in our hearts that is opened when we feel fear and then safety, or even the potential for safety. Or an awareness of how shared this experience is — being afraid, fearing from uncertainty and helplessness, fearing for the well-being of our loved ones. And perhaps it’s realizing the preciousness of this life that we can locate, not coincidentally but quite explicitly right there in the midst of that precariousness. When we realize not only how much we need each other but also how much we can in fact be there for and with each other, come what may. Maybe that is how fear awakens joy.

            And maybe it’s the joy that comes when we, in spite of our fear, find ways to live the life we feel called to live. Lives committed to our values, lives of rejoicing together in community, celebrating these moments we are given and performing the sacred gestures we have learned with which to mark our days. Maybe in those simple acts we can find profound joy. Perhaps more profound by virtue of our apprehension that we will not have these moments forever. And it’s not that the fear goes away, it’s that we also find a sustaining refuge alongside or even in the midst of it.

 

            Snyder ends his book with a quote by Hamlet, a protagonist who was shocked by the rise of a ruthless leader: “‘The time is out of joint. O cursed spite,/That ever I was born to set it right!’ Thus Hamlet. Yet he concludes, ‘Nay, come, let’s go together.’”

            Perhaps you have wished not to be in this moment in history. We all, I venture to say, wish we did not have to face this. But, Nay, come, let’s go together.” Let us find one another. Let us build a world in which we all have refuge, in which all beings everywhere feel safe.

Hineinu: Being Here with Truth

Rabbi Benjamin on Erev Rosh Hashanah 5780

 

            This past year I read Isabel Wilkerson’s, The Warmth of Other Suns, which narrates the great migration of African-Americans from the South to the North and West. In it, Wilkerson conveys the history through stories of three individuals and their families. One of the migrants, Ida Mae Gladney, fled with her family from Chickasaw County, Mississippi and eventually settled on the South Side of Chicago.

            Ida Mae’s story pulled me in from the start since, three generations before me, my family also migrated to Chicago’s South Side. I read with curiosity each time the book returned to their story: the moves from one overpriced (for black people), ill-kept flat to the next, and the relentless struggle to keep their children fed and warm on the wages Ida Mae and her husband could muster. Eventually, thirty years after fleeing the South, they had enough saved for a down payment on a home. They found one in the South Shore neighborhood. Within weeks there were moving trucks up and down their block, and in little time the neighborhood had transformed from all white to nearly all black.

            My fascination with Ida Mae’s story went beyond the Chicago connection. My maternal grandmother, who lived her entire life on the South Side, was also named Ida. And as it happens, she was born the very same year, 1913, as Ida Mae Gladney. So at first I was simply amazed by these connections, and mused to myself about the parallel lives these two Ida’s were living. But when Wilkerson recounted the events surrounding the Gladney’s home purchase, I began to see more clearly my family’s story within the context of theirs. South Shore was actually the neighborhood in which my grandparents lived and raised their kids — my mom and her siblings. It was one of the neighborhoods in which my parents lived before moving to the suburbs in the early 70’s, a handful of years after Ida Mae and her family moved in. Around that same time my grandparents moved a bit north to the neighborhood of Hyde Park. Which is to say that the lives of these two Ida’s weren’t parallel, they were perpendicular.

            I feel uncomfortable with my place in this story. Mind you, my great-grandparents and grandparents and parents were and are generous and caring people. My mother taught in the Head Start program at Stateway Gardens housing project, my father volunteered coaching a little league team in their neighborhood before they had kids of their own. And my family story is one like innumerable other stories of Jews who escaped persecution. Ida’s father, my great-grandpa Max, left Russia on his own at age 16, fleeing the Czar’s draft. My son Lev is currently 16, and my mind shudders to imagine him on that journey. Each generation, beginning with Max’s first scrap metal operation, has worked hard to achieve success.

            Whether my parents’ moving to the suburbs was right or not is not the question I am asking. Rather, what this story highlights for me is the fact that they could move. That they had freedom, access, and mobility that families like Ida Mae Gladney’s, working at the very least as hard as them if not harder, were not granted. This distinction was not incidental; my family’s success was enabled in various ways by race — by the racial caste into which we were placed (even if not immediately). By systematically providing some people with resources and access and others not, as a society we create realities, which lead to stories we tell about ourselves and others which simply are not true. So to consider my family’s success without acknowledging these factors is to tell only part of the story, and in doing so hides some very important truths.

 

            What I am going to reflect on tonight is this endeavor to name what is true, both in our lives and in the world. This can mean so many different things, and can be applied on any level from the intimate to the global. An essential step to any positive change is to perceive as clearly as we can the true nature of who we are and how we arrived at this moment. As my friend Rabbi Yael Levy offered when we discussed this topic, “It is so hard to stand in the truth. There are so many ways to duck. So many reasonable ways to duck.”

            So I want to explore the practice of not “ducking” from the truth. Of saying Hineinu: Here We Are by being with what is true. Even, or especially, when that truth is uncomfortable.

 

            What does it look like, what does it feel like, to abide in the truth of our lives? I’m not speaking about some objective, philosophical truth. Not the truth. But truth in the sense of integrity, alignment with our commitments and values, recognition and awareness of what is happening within and around us, what has shaped our perspective and our environment, and what motivates us to act one way or another.

            When I consider this in my own life, beginning on a very personal level, I recall a seemingly mundane story from my time in rabbinical school. I was in a challenging class, taught by a smart and demanding teacher, learning alongside some very smart colleagues. It was a particularly difficult session, as I tried to get my head around the section of Talmud we were learning. At one point I offered an interpretation that didn’t cut it. I got a lukewarm response from the professor and nothing from my classmates.

            From there I fell silent, and felt myself grow distant from the group. The discussion was esoteric and pointless, I told myself. They’re not listening to each other, I judged, they’re just wanting to hear their own voices. As the hour went on, I found myself increasingly annoyed.

            As soon as we broke halfway through class, I got up, walked out of the room, down the stairs, and out the front door of the building. Directly across from the school is an arboretum. I headed straight to it and started speaking out loud, voicing my criticism of the class, the material, my classmates (some of whom were good friends of mine). And the program in general, that it wasn’t right for me, that I didn’t really fit in this community. I decided I would just stay out in the arboretum and then head home. I was not going back into that classroom.

            Then I heard the words: “Maybe you’re just feeling insecure because you’re struggling in the class. You need to go back in there.”

            As I have narrated this story to myself over the years, I call it God’s voice. It doesn’t matter what you think of that, of who or what that voice was. The point is that it was the voice of truth. It was crystal clear, and it was right. And I had no defense against it. I could have resisted it, but I knew that if I did I would only suffer more.

            I hated having to go back into that classroom. I didn’t have my blame and judgment as a defense anymore. But the truth with which I was faced, while a challenge and something I would have avoided if I could, was also a gift. It gave me a chance to grow and learn, and draw closer to others rather than more distant.

            James Baldwin taught: “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.” My example is a pretty tame version of that, but still is about hiding behind blame and judgment, in which the seeds of hatred are sown. Seeing the truth of a situation is uncomfortable. But the alternative is toxicity, toward ourselves and others.

            We are given so many opportunities and challenges to live in truth. Moments in which we are awakened, or have the potential to be awakened, from small omissions or mis-tellings, as well as larger deceptions and betrayals. Infidelities in a relationship or to our commitments. Ways in which we tell ourselves certain things to avoid what is truly being asked of us. And each time we do, it is not that we are failing to obey some external God of judgment. It is that we are missing opportunities to access our potential for learning and connection, and to facilitate healing and transformation.

 

            The Hebrew word for truth is emet. Interestingly, the root is not, as one might expect it to be, its three letters, aleph-mem-tav. Rather, its root is aleph-mem-nun, from the word emunah, faith. The capacity to encounter and abide in truth emerges out of faith, trust — in ourselves, in our loved ones and our relationships, in this life and in its potential for meaning and wholeness.

            As Sharon Salzberg writes, “Faith enables us, despite our fear, to get as close as possible to the truth of the present moment, so that we can offer our hearts fully to it, with integrity…Faith gives us the willingness to engage life, which means the unknown, and not shrink back from it.” When we have faith in the value of this life and our world, we are more able to encounter truths even when they are difficult.

            The poet David Whyte offers this: “Confession is a stripping away of protection, the telling of a truth which might once have seemed like a humiliation, become suddenly a gateway, an entrance to solid ground; even a first step home…To confess is to declare oneself ready for a more courageous road…”

            If we view the confessional litany of this season as self-deprecating, we miss the point. Instead, we name what is true as a gateway onto that more courageous road. At the heart of these days is a loving presence assuring us that we no longer need to hide, or that we can hide just a bit less.

 

            This tendency to hide is deep and old within us. From almost the very beginning of Torah, we hide. After Adam and Eve eat from the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, God asks, Ayeka? “Where are you?” It’s as if the Divine is setting them up to say, ‘Hineinu — Here we are. This is what we did. How do we make amends?’ Instead, of course, Adam blames Eve, and Eve blames the serpent. Interestingly, though, before blaming Eve, Adam explains that they were hiding because they knew they were naked. He acknowledges the hiding, as if the inclination to confess almost breaks through. But that is quickly cast aside.

            I love this detail in the text because it acknowledges that we cannot always face the truth directly. We cannot always say the full Hineinu, so to speak. Sometimes it’s too painful or too scary to be with life as it is. But even when we can’t, we can be truthful about our hiding from the truth. And that is often the crucial first step.

 

            Each time we are truthful internally, we are conditioning ourselves to stand up for truth in the public sphere. There is growing falsehood in the world. It is dangerous and we need to boldly shine a light upon it. Timothy Snyder, in his essential little book On Tyranny, puts it simply: “Post-truth is pre-fascism.” This we know already. He also writes this: “You submit to tyranny when you renounce the difference between what you want to hear and what is actually the case.” And so we must be diligent, not only in calling out others but also in interrogating our own perspectives, our own narratives of who we are and how we got here. We must be willing to not know, must be willing to encounter new truths when they present themselves.

 

            Some of you were with us for Shavuot this past June, when we were treated to readings by Havurah members Alicia Jo Rabins and Rebecca Clarren. Becca read from a work of hers in progress, exploring her family’s history as ranchers in South Dakota. Her ancestors had escaped anti-Semitic persecution in Russia. Enduring great toil and discomfort, they built a life for themselves and their descendants in the American West.

            Like other immigrants at the time, the family received land from the federal government, 160 acres for free if they could turn prairie into farmland. In the book, Becca explores her realization years ago that the land our government had given her family and other settlers had of course first been stolen from native tribes. She reflects on how, amidst all the rich stories passed down from her great-great-grandparents and their children — stories of genuine endurance and resolve — there were no stories of the native peoples who were displaced. She writes, “That these particular stories are what have been handed down, selected from the slush pile of history, leaving other more problematic plotlines behind is instructive. Because of course, both the stories we tell and the ones we don’t equally create the myth we pass to future generations.”

            It is no small thing to tell stories that have lay hidden, to unearth what Becca calls the “previously unexamined past.” It is an uncertain and often risky path to travel, because we don’t know how what we find will change our understanding of who we are, and of our identities, whether personal or collective, in relation to others whose histories were different. For those of us who have benefited from whiteness in this country, there is so much still to be examined.

            I think, for instance, of the language many of us use of our ancestors, whether Jewish or otherwise, having “pulled themselves up by their boot straps” upon coming to this country. It’s not that my great-grandparents, for instance, didn’t work hard when they got here. They endured sacrifices beyond anything I have had to. But people who have amassed any amount of wealth in this country received government assistance along the way. The mortgage interest deduction and tax breaks for capital gains are but two examples in which government assistance disproportionately aids people who already have some wealth. And the corollary to the boot straps narrative is that if you are poor or haven’t amassed much wealth, then your ancestors didn’t pull themselves up by their bootstraps, at least not hard enough. But for some groups of people assistance was denied, or made so cumbersome that it was, in effect, inaccessible. Many have written about how the GI Bill, for instance, presumably color-blind, largely left out black veterans. And needless to say, Native Americans did not benefit from the Homestead Act of 1862, the law which provided settlers with those 160 acres of land. In addition, discriminatory housing policies, wildly divergent levels of investment in education, and a criminal justice system which targets black and brown people are just a few more examples of ways in which many of us have received a boost, while others, in particular those upon whose land and backs this nation was built, have been systematically denied access to accruing wealth and security. So while a family’s success may very well have involved some bootstrap-pulling, that truth is partial enough that it conceals more than it reveals.

            In a recent interview on Fresh Air, Ta-Nehisi Coates, in speaking about why memory is so important and powerful, offers that, “Much of [this] country’s history is premised on forgetting; [on] not remembering certain things.” And in an introduction to his groundbreaking article, “The Case for Reparations,” Coates writes, “To enact reparations would mean not simply an outlay of money but also a deep reconsideration of America’s own autobiography.”

            These are fitting challenges to consider on this day, one of whose names is Yom HaZikaron, the Day of Remembrance. As we enter our new year, begin these Ten Days of Returning, of righting wrongs however we can, one of the essential acts in which we must engage is that of remembering. Neither personally nor collectively do we want to remember things that are uncomfortable — ways in which we have caused harm, or bear some responsibility for injustice. So instead we hide. The first step toward healing and repair is simply to acknowledge what we know is true.

 

            In our remembering, compassion is essential. For other and for self. If we pursue truth with blame and shame, we will not be able to get close enough to it. If our approach castigates or diminishes, it will only fuel more suffering.

            One of my favorite midrashim, imaginative retellings of Torah, follows the people’s building the golden calf. God wants to destroy them, but Moses pleads on their behalf. According to the midrash, Moses became physically ill when he heard what the people had done. A later commentator, the Meshekh Ḥokhmah, runs with this and says Moses pleaded so hard on behalf of the people that he prayed himself into a fever, and in the depths of that fever, in a trance-like saw within himself the same capacity for faithlessness. He realizes that if he were in a different situation, for instance down there without a leader rather than up on the mountain with God, he too might have reached for something to ease his fears.

            Ta-Nehisi Coates, in that interview, also says, “History…and maybe moral problems in general become really really easy if you can’t see yourself in the people that you condemn. Because then you just get to feel better than people. You know, I would never do x, y, and z.”

            When hard truths reveal themselves, sometimes we blame others, and sometimes we berate ourselves. Both are variations on hiding. The alternative path is to say Hineinu. Here we are. This is who we are, this is who I am. These are the ways in which we have, so far, become. All that has wounded, all that is beautiful. Here we are. Let us join hands and navigate these waters together. Let us support each other as we take the risks we need to to step out onto that “more courageous road.”

            May we each be blessed with the capacity to live in truth. May we strengthen each in that endeavor. And may we join with one another to boldly and graciously lift the banner of truth wherever and however we are able.

            L’shanah tovah tikateivu — May we all, and may all beings everywhere be inscribed for goodness.

 

Mon, December 9 2019 11 Kislev 5780