Dear friends, fellow travelers, and accidental readers, I don’t want to beat around the bush.
It’s Thursday, the first day of Sukkot, with the annual Torah cycle drawing to a close, and I’m up to my eyeballs in contemplation: Should I re-up Awkward Offerings for a third year?The High Holy Days have that (intended) effect on me – what do I leave behind and what do I take up? What needs to be unlearned and undone, and what embraced and expanded? It’s a heady transition, one underscored by this harvest holiday of temporary structures. It’s a good time to consider both the trap & the illusion of permanence. (See Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s beautiful take here.)
I don’t know exactly what I thought would come of this blog beyond some vague notion of mild fame and fortune. I’d muse on things important to me and dang… If I built it, they would come. Think me deep and witty. Read my poetry. Tell their friends. (And so on and so on and so on.) Let’s be honest. Why else would any writer put their words out into the universe if not to be read?
I did all the things one is supposed to do: advertise on Facebook, respond to other people’s blogs, implore my friends to pass the word. I had a brief mention in Reform Judaism magazine and the honor of being included in Rabbi Rachel Barenblat’s Passover Haggadah. Bloggers who I respect 150% added me to their “Links” list. And yet. A blog about shoes or chocolate pudding gets thousands of hit per day, while I’ve never broken out into the high double digits. I’ve received wonderful, heartfelt feedback (often, it should be said, from my friends) and spent far too much time worrying about the numbers. What does this mean about me?
I’m not whining, folks. Just doing some existential and creative calculation. Would I rather continue on with these themes of Torah, etc., or re-launch my other blog (long abandoned for lack of time) on work, Chop Wood Carry Water? It is certainly calling me. Or should I follow my instinct to create WTF Is Wrong With You? I’ve been imagining this rant platform for months. Rick Perry’s Niggerhead Ranch? The idiot who parked their car in front of my driveway despite it being a… DRIVEWAY? With this sort of approach, I wouldn’t have to be so damn serious all the time.
Or perhaps I should give up blogging altogether, focus on other pursuits equally injurious to my ego, but less obviously so.
All of which is to say: I am likely to go off-line for a little bit to consider my options as well as the temporary nature of things. The illusion that there is one right choice. The truth that I may never be famous.
Thanks for sticking with me this far into the game. Let’s see what happens next.
We have gone astray, we have led others astray.
Friends, I was going to write an extended meditation about the Vidui, the confessional prayer we return to again and again during the 25 hours of Yom Kippur, where we communally admit to abuse, betrayal, cruelty, gossip, insult, hatred, neglect, oppression, rebellion, theft, and xenophobia (to name a few). I was planning to admit my love for this prayer and the role that repentance plays in our lives — even in exaggerated form — and then, while procrastinating, I read the headlines coming out of Israel.
Headline #1: Last week in Anatot, a West Bank settlement just 20 minutes out of Jerusalem, dozens of residents armed with sticks and rocks attacked a Palestinian family and the Israeli activists who were with them. Not a single one of the attackers was arrested. According to eyewitness reports, (Jewish) women cheered on their husbands when they verbally threatened (Jewish) female activists with sexual violence. The videos are chilling. Did I mention this took place on Rosh Hashanah?
Headline #2: An 18-year-old Jewish settler is alleged to have set fire to a mosque in the Galilee village of Tuba-Zangariya, not far from the spiritual center of Safed. The words “price tag” and “revenge” were scrawled at the scene. The young man being detained attends a seminary. All this during the Days of Awe. Holy Days.
Headline #3: Israeli soldiers were surrounded and assaulted yesterday at a West Bank roadblock — not by Palestinians, but by dozens of settlers, mostly young men. Oh yeah, and then there were the 200 olive and fig trees uprooted in the nearby Palestinian village overnight.
This is nothing less than disgusting.
And it calls for repentance. Just like most of the other million miserable things that happen in the world each and every day, I am not directly responsible. You are probably not directly responsible. And yet — it happens.
Because we are silent, it happens. Because when it starts small or doesn’t affect us or costs money to deal with, we look away. Downplay it. Don’t want to be alarmist. Because we have too many things on our plate to pay attention. Because it’s too hard. Because we secretly like that other guy getting kicked in the teeth. For God’s sake, people, we have so many excuses.
Myself included, and I feel terrible about that, even as I know that if I were never to sleep again and had all the money in the world, I couldn’t fix it. I can’t even fix my own small corner of the universe, let alone the human condition. And THAT is why I am going to take fist to chest this Yom Kippur. Because I feel lousy about how badly human beings mess up despite our best intentions. Because I’m heartbroken.
Because as Abraham Joshua Heschel admonished: We are not all guilty, but we are all responsible.
Because going easy on myself, on all of us, is a cop-out. Because maybe next year we can do better. G’mar Hatimah Tovah — a good inscription and an easy fast.
Like a pencil poised for calculation, a key not yet turned in the twitchy ignition, so was the curved throat of God in the nothing before the (ready, so ready) beginning. Then: Black letters proclaimed onto the white parchment universe. Then: Big Bang (call it what you will)— Water swirling away from water and sapphire sky pouring out. Greater lights and lesser, crackling meteors & stars— Sprouting seeds with their tasty fruit, towering trees with their riddles— Twirling serpents & creepers of the soil; all the swarming, leaping, winged things— And last to come, dusty youngsters made in the image (haploid, diploid, twin & twin)— Each called into itself by that voice. That voice. Insistent, unfurling— The deafening pulse of now. So good.
This is not a trifling thing for you: it is your very life.
I ask you. On any given day, someone is rude to you for no good reason. Your mother lays a heavy guilt trip for not calling her since Saturday. A friend asks if they look fat. You wonder whether to ignore someone’s request for help until it’s too late.
And then they execute a man in Georgia, despite mountains of doubt. Fellow human beings inject a possibly innocent man with chemicals of death and he’s gone. Despite the million signatures opposing his execution, despite the lack of physical evidence & the prayer vigils & the Board of Clemency being split, they killed Troy Davis.
Lawrence Brewer was also executed yesterday, for his participation in the racially motivated and horrific death of James Byrd in Texas. And yet, as my friend Cheryl Hyde writes on her blog Execution Day, it’s blindingly difficult to be 100% settled about the death penalty, 100% sure that one man should live and the other die.
How are we to live in this world?
I keep coming back to Torah. About the need for a path in one’s life, the role of consistent principles and time-tested wisdom. If you are a loyal reader you’ve witnessed my wrestling with the text. My outright disagreement and disgust. In the world of the Torah, one or both of these men might have been stoned.
Life is not a trifling thing. I feel like I could use all the help I can get.
The state of Georgia may execute Troy Davis on September 21st and if there is only one thing you read in the next 24 hours, make it Explaining the Death Penalty to my Children by blogger Emily Hauser.
Emily writes movingly about Davis, sentenced 20 years ago in the killing of a police officer, and how this will be the last week of his life unless the Georgia Board of Pardons steps in to say otherwise. Seven of the 9 witnesses have recanted their testimony. There is no physical evidence. And yet this 42-year-old man might be killed by his fellow citizens.
This has been a week of death.
At last Monday’s CNN-Tea Party Republican debate, members of the audience shouted “Yeah!” when Ron Paul was asked whether a critically ill person without health insurance should be left to die (which is kinda what happened to his former campaign manager).
And the week before, governor and candidate Rick Perry announced that he neither loses sleep nor struggles with the fact that 234 people have been executed in Texas during his watch. Just the mere mention of 234 deaths by injection got the largest applause line of the entire debate series.
How beyond insane is that?
Oh yeah, have I mentioned that 750,000 people may starve in Somalia because Islamic militants are refusing the allow the delivery of humanitarian aid into areas they control? And the 26 people killed by a suicide bomber at a Pakistani funeral of a carpenter, for God’s sake?
I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse (Deuteronomy 30:19).
Now we don’t always choose death – just today there’s a story about a family asking that the death penalty not be handed down in a hate crime during which their relative was murdered. And a federal court judge in Florida ruled that yes, doctors can tell patients to keep family handguns away from children.
But, truly, our track record isn’t so great. Freud (and the Greeks before him) may have been right about our death-wish. Read Emily’s piece in the Atlantic. Do something for Troy Davis. Be the kind of human that doesn’t cheer at the mention of death.
First paragraph: If you go out to battle and see a woman fair of form, don’t be a brute. Take her home, let her mourn for 30 days, and only then can she be yours to marry. If after that you tire of her, she is not to be sold, but set free.
Next paragraph: if you have 2 wives, one you adore & one you hate, you are not allowed to favor the son of the adored-one if he is the second-born. You must leave your property to the first-born, even if he is the son of the unloved wife.
These are the beginning commandments of Ki Teitze, the portion marking the week of my stepdaughter’s wedding, and the text from which words of Torah were to be gleaned at the men’s tish/”table”. In more traditional communities, the tish involves a roomful of semi-drunken men catcalling, singing, and otherwise disrupting the nervous groom as he attempts to share his hard-won knowledge of Torah before signing the marriage contract and going before the rabbi. Nica & Joey did something a little different, but in the general spirit – each was surrounded by close family and friends in separate rooms, basking in blessings, advice, and an occasional laugh. Alcohol was not consumed. Catcalling was not encouraged.
Anyway, as the leader of the women’s tish, I did not go anywhere near the Torah text because the gender politics, even if enlightened for their time, make me a tad crazy (as I’ve written about here). Also, I didn’t want to work that hard. My spouse, however, father of the bride, took his traditional role more seriously. I wasn’t there, but I did hear about about the general goings-on. Here I share 2 very sweet pieces of wisdom, paraphrased.
1. We all have 2 wives. Well, this is true (though I don’t know for sure, I suspect the men all nodded knowingly at this, forgetting for a moment that this rule also applies to them). Every one of us in a long-term partnership is actually having multiple relationships — with the lover we love & the lover we don’t love so much. The affectionate spouse. The snarky spouse. The reasonable and patently unreasonable beloved. The person who puts us at the center of the universe & the person who whacks our head off every so often for no good reason. The man or woman we stood under the chuppah for and the Frankenstein we would gladly take to divorce court. This is what makes marriage – straight, gay, legal, or not – so damn interesting.
2. We are the ones who have been captured. This is courtesy of my dear friend Robert. Let’s put aside our testosterone-fueled fantasies of conquest, he advised, and realize that we have been swept off our feet by the person we love. She (or he) has captured our heart, reeled us in, changed us forever. We can pretend that we’re in control, but we ain’t. We need to give up that ridiculous illusion.
Many of us love weddings because they remind us of the expansiveness of love, the fairy tale of infinite proportions. But as Pat Benatar sang, love is also most definitely a battlefield. None of us remains unchanged or unscathed by it. We get knocked about and upside the head. And if we’re lucky, we spend a lifetime going back for more.
I’ve got tzara’at. You know — the Biblical oozing creeping scales & red spots. Otherwise known mistakenly as “leprosy” which I’ve written about here and here. Also known as unidentified bug bites (not bedbugs, however, thankfully — my sin wasn’t bad enough for that), perhaps spiders, who knows what, that got slightly infected & began to itch like there’s no tomorrow.
I went to the priest known as PromptCare and was given antibiotics, topical steroids, and a tetanus shot (just because it had been a while). Just having the diagnosis made me feel a whole lot better (despite the low-grade fever I didn’t know I had) and got me thinking about how damn scary any never-seen-before skin eruption would have been back in the day several thousand years ago when the only explanation was your lack of moral fiber, swamp gas, or small devil-like creatures — and the only medicine a poultice and time.
I’m not opposed to poultices on principal. This is actually the first time I’ve been to see a “regular” medical doctor for anything more than an annual exam in close to a decade. My health care of choice tends toward the alternative. But when I saw little inexplicable red lines branching out from these hive/bite things, it freaked me out. I’m in danger! Get me a cure!
Coincidentally, my tipping point — from unconcerned & annoyed to freaked out — came on the eve of the first day of the month of Elul, the month before the High Holy Days, a month designed for taking stock.
I consider this timing no coincidence, but rather a cosmic reminder in the midst of the final preparations for my stepdaughter Lonica’s wedding on Sunday. It is easy to get lost, when worrying about seating charts & flower delivery & the music playlist, in just how joyous an occasion this is, how lovely this sort of beginning. To forget about love and commitment and dreams.
It is also easy to forget that the rest of the world goes on — floods in Vermont, gunfire in Tripoli, death & destruction everywhere. A dear friend was admitted to the hospital yesterday with neurological symptoms and a suspicious brain scan. Another dear friend sits with her 93-year-old dying mother after a very rough couple months. Still another drove toward the bad weather on the East Coast 3 days ago to be with her father in the hospital. With all our medicines and advanced understanding, there are still mysteries. Still fear. Still things we cannot understand, predict, or fix.
My tzara’at will likely not kill me (pooh! pooh! pooh!). But dear readers, it does remind me to not take anything — not one damn thing — for granted. This is a blessed way to begin the month of Elul.
And p.s., if you’re interested in a post about this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim (Judges), click here for last year’s offering.