COVID and the Power of Kindness

Just a bit ago, I posted on Facebook a famous vignette from the Talmud:

When Rabbi Meir was being harassed by men in his town, he went home and prayed for their deaths.His wife, Beruriah, chastised him. “You shouldn’t wish for their deaths, but for them to change. God says that “Evil will depart from the earth,” not “evildoers.””

It’s hard, but I try to be like Beruriah.

That was my from-memory rendering of a story in the Talmud, Berachot 10a, for what it’s worth. It was also a thinly-veiled reference to today’s news that President Trump, along with Melania, have tested positive for COVID. Since posting it, I’ve been reading the comments, reading other peoples posts about this topic (some in a very similar vein, some very different), and thinking about it quite a bit. A few thoughts I’d like to share…

First of all, as I hinted that when I said that I try to be like Beruriah, and made a lot clearer in some comments, this is much more an aspiration than a reality, as far as how I reacted to the news. My honest, initial reaction was a lot less gracious and pious than this. And, if I’m being really honest, I’ll also admit that I’m not even 100% sure that this represents how I want to feel. A not insignificant part of me could easily argue that more bitterness is warranted here. I wouldn’t blame or shame anyone if they felt that way, or expressed it.

You know, there is a famous Midrash that rabbis love to quote, in which God gets angry at our celebration at the Red Sea, when the Egyptians drown in it, and we go free. “How can you celebrate when My people are drowning?” God asks. It’s the “My” which is so important there. Even our greatest enemies, even the people who have done unspeakable evil to us, are still God’s people. Every person is created in God’s image – even the ones that we hate. Even the ones that we deserve to hate.

But, I just lied to you, a little bit. God doesn’t actually get angry when we celebrate the Egyptian drowning. God only gets angry when the angels start to celebrate, too. When we, human beings who have just been released from Egyptian slavery and savagery, celebrate their demise, God lets it go. It seems to me the message is that reveling in our enemies death and or suffering is not the ideal reaction (i.e. not with age what angels should do), but it is a reasonable reaction for us–limited, flawed humans that we are. I’ve always thought that offers a nice balance, giving us some grace when we aren’t so holy, but also giving us an ideal to strive for.


The other thought I keep coming back to is about why I think it’s important to at least try to not celebrate this news in any way. Because, let’s also be clear that my happiness, or lack thereof, about Trump contracting COVID has absolutely no effect on his health. I can pray all day for his recovery, or I can pray all day for his death. Neither action will make either result the least bit more or less likely. Nothing I do will have the tiniest impact on him, in any way.

But, it will most certainly have an enormous impact on me. How I choose to respond to this news will leave it’s mark on my psyche and, if you like, my soul. My attempts to not openly wish for his illness or death are not necessarily because I don’t want him to get sick, or to die. It’s because I don’t want to be the kind of person who wishes for someone to get sick, or to die. Because giving voice to those feelings, honest as they may be, will feed and nurture the meaner, darker sides of myself. Those sides are real–I’m not denying them, in the least. But, I also know that they aren’t the best of me. I’m not happiest with myself, I’m not proudest of myself, when I give them voice, or when I nurture them. They may represent some of who I am; they don’t represent who I aspire to be.

For what it’s worth, I think that this is something which my Christian and Buddhist colleagues are clearer about than most of us in the Jewish world. Jewish teaching (often for the good) tends to focus on our effect on the world “out there” more than on our inner world. Other religions are (in my limited experience) more likely to talk about the way our thoughts, speech, and actions have an impact on our own selves.

Like I said, there are very important benefits to focusing on the outer effects, rather than the inner. And, it’s also most certainly true that Judaism isn’t the least bit a stranger to the “make yourself a better person” approach. But, it’s a difference I’ve noticed, and it seems worth honoring my religious cousins who have taught me in this way.


Man, do I hope that Beruriah was on to something. I hope that, somehow, against every single expectation I have, our President comes through this moment and emerges a better, kinder man. But, that is completely outside my influence. I also hope that I come through this moment and emerge a better, kinder man. And, I know that I have something to say about that.

Holy Suffering?

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, talks about our people crying out under the oppression of Pharaoh (Deuteronomy 26:7). Commenting on that cry, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik talks about the difference between pain and suffering.

Slaves, he teaches, are like animals* in that while they experience pain, they don’t truly know suffering. By virtue of being slaves, they have lost their existential awareness, and essentially live only in the moment. As soon as the painful stimulus is removed, the experience is over, and they go back to living in the moment, now without that pain.

* Just in case it’s not abundantly clear, he’s talking about “slave” as a degraded state of being, not as a inherent quality of a person, and certainly not tied to race!

Moses changed all that for our people, he teaches. When Moses defended a helpless Jew (Exodus 2:11 – 12) and began our road towards redemption, he reawakened in us our awareness that, “all that pain, anguish, humiliation, and cruelty is evil.” He helped us to realize that experiencing all that torture and degradation was not natural, was not necessary, and was not right. Because of that reawakening, we began to remember that, simply because we are human, each one created Betzelem Elohim, in God’s image, we deserve better than that. We understood that the pain was wrong, and we began to resist it, which led to suffering even after the moment was over.


In my mindfulness study, which is heavily informed by Buddhist thinking, I’ve been introduced to the idea that suffering is pain combined with resistance. Pain is just a sensory or emotional experience; the real suffering comes we tried to resist or deny that experience. That doesn’t mean that we can’t try to change it, but we should at least accept, in the moment, that the pain is precisely what it is, nothing more, nothing less*.

* I’m obviously giving incredibly short shrift to a really important, subtle idea here!

Soloveitchik is giving me a new, powerful way to think about this suffering, though. Yes, suffering happens when we resist the pain that we’re in. But, that may not be a bad thing. In part, it’s a sign that we realize that we deserve more than this. And, although it is true that life isn’t fair, and it’s good to remember that, it’s also good to remember, in some ways, that life should be fair. There is a close connection between our sense of fairness, our sense of deserving something, and our humanity.

It’s one of the (seemingly endless stream of) teachings which seems especially poignant at this point in time. The world is, as many of us keep saying, a dumpster fire. Between the ongoing pandemic which has disrupted all of our lives and killed hundreds of thousands of people, the horrible racial realities unfolding in our nation and world, and the toxicity of our political system, many of us feel a sense of deep despair.

Maybe, in some small way, that’s a good thing.

Maybe despair is, at least in part, an expression of our understanding that this isn’t right, and this is isn’t fair. That this isn’t the way the world is supposed to be. That we deserve more — all of us do. Maybe despair, and anger, and all of those painful emotions that we so often categorize as “negative” are really an expression of our humanity. Maybe they’re the pain of our souls, our higher selves, longing for something better, something holy.

Potential

Recently, I read The Sports Gene by David Epstein. It’s a book about the biological (largely genetic) foundation of our athletic ability. Not surprisingly, it’s quite complicated — there certainly isn’t a single gene for sports, or anything like that. But, it turns out quite a bit about our athletic prowess is decided at the moment of our conception.

When it comes to aerobic capacity, there are actually two separate factors which are largely based in our genetics. One is our baseline aerobic capacity — how efficient we’ll be, and how much stamina we’ll have, before we start any real training. The other is our ability to respond to training — not everyone improves equally with the same amount of work. We all start at different places, and we all improve at different rates. If I remember the book properly, it’s pretty demonstrably clear that this is true when it comes to our aerobic capacity, but it applies to other athletic traits, as well. Physical strength, coordination, and much more all have a genetic baseline, and a genetic capacity for improvement. 

I have a pretty strong suspicion that, were I to investigate my own genetic makeup, I’d find out that I’m pretty low in all of these measures. I am, politely speaking, not exactly a natural, Olympian specimen. As a kid, my most noticeable physical trait was my scrawniness (some of our family friends nickname me “Arnold” as a joking reference to Arnold Schwarzenegger). If I go for a run, I’m out of breath pretty much immediately. I could go on, but you get the idea.

The thing is, I’ve actually worked pretty hard for most my life to get better. I work out pretty regularly, and I’ve tried a couple of times to become a runner – even training for a 5K. But, it’s a little embarrassing (although it shouldn’t be) how hard I had to train just to be able to run that 5K. It took me about three months (and the “Couch to 5K” program) just to reach my goal, which wasn’t any particular time, but rather simply being able to run 5K without stopping, or slowing to a walk. I have friends who could do absolutely nothing athletic for months on end, get up off the couch and run a mile without too much trouble. Me? I tried to run 2 miles with Hillary couple of months ago, and I stopped after one, walking back home, lightheaded the whole way.

As for all that weightlifting I’ve been doing, pretty consistently ever since I graduated college? Well, I am definitely not the toothpick I used to be, but I am no one’s idea of a muscled-up giant, either. Don’t get me wrong — I’m pretty happy with how I look for an almost 50-year-old wimp. But, given the amount of weights I’ve lifted over the years, I sometimes think I should be bigger than I am. But, I always realize that “should” has nothing to do with it.

I was born with the body I was given, and also with the potential I was given to make it better. I will never, ever, no matter how much I try* be able to run a marathon. I will never, ever, no matter how much I try** be able to comfortably run a 5K. I will never, ever, no matter how much I try put on another 20 pounds of muscle. It just ain’t gonna happen.

* I’m not going to try

** Nope. Not this, either

But — and this is the important part — I am more muscular right now than I would be if I didn’t work out. My endurance, while still pretty laughable, is better than it would be if I didn’t take all the long walks and struggled through the kickboxing training videos that I do. My health, which has a reasonably sized checklist of problems, thankfully none of them serious (yet!), is almost definitely a world better than it would be if I sat on the couch, watched movies, and ate pizza all day*. I am not the biggest, fastest, healthiest person you know. But, I am the biggest, fastest**, healthiest version of myself, right now.

*  Totally willing to try this one.

** Okay. Not the fastest. I really don’t train for running, anymore. I hate it so much.


Why am I rambling on about this? Because I have a strong suspicion that something very similar is happening in our spiritual lives, as well. I know that “spiritual” is a word which gets tossed around a lot, often in vague, frustrating ways. But, I’m using it in the sense of an ability to be aware of, and in touch with, the most profound parts of ourselves, and of the world around us. And, I have met people who seem to be so much more naturally open to this higher awareness than I am. There are people who seem to respond so naturally, and so deeply to prayer. There are people who seem to be so totally transformed by being in nature, or by listening to music, or by performing art, or by meditating.

What you may or may not know about me is that I struggle with all of this. Obviously, it’s hard to do any comparisons, because unlike physical abilities, all of our spiritual capacity is inward, and unmeasurable. But, based on lots of conversations and observations over the years, I honestly believe that I have a very low natural spiritual awareness. Almost nothing that I’ve done in the religious or spiritual realm has felt natural, or come easily, or has had the profound benefits which are often promised. Especially, not at first.

But, slowly but surely, I have become more spiritual, more spiritually aware, more open, than I used to be. It took me three months to train for that 5K, and I ran it at a pace that would have bored so many people that I know. But, I did it. I decided that it was important for me, and I trained hard, and I got better, and I did it.

It’s been the same as my spiritual life. It’s taken me years to get to the point where I am, now. And, if these things could be measured, I strongly suspect that I wouldn’t be winning any medals for spiritual awareness*. But, it’s not a contest, and it’s not a race. Or, if it is, it’s only against my former self. I am more spiritually… Mature? Evolved? Aware?… than I used to be. Than I ever was before.

* I’m really not looking for any “oh no, you’re so spiritual” comments here. I’m sharing my honest sense and observations.

It remains a constant struggle, if I’m still being honest. I almost never (and I really, truly mean almost never) sit down to meditate and think, “oh good; this is just what I want to be doing.” I often have to fight an actual urge to flee during the early parts of a meditation practice! I rarely want to pray. And so on, and so on, and so on. But, I know that all of these practices will ultimately make me better — not better than someone else, not better than you, but better than the person I would be otherwise. And that makes the struggle worth it.


What I hope is clear, but should probably be made explicit, is that I’m not trying to brag here. The point of all this is, hopefully, to get all of you to think about yourselves in this way.

I can’t tell you the number of people who have told me that they aren’t spiritual, or aren’t religious, or can’t meditate. As if these are immutable qualities of our lives. They aren’t. Odds are, you will never be the Buddha, or the Dalai Lama, or Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. That’s okay; you don’t have to be.

The only question is whether you are happy with your current way of seeing the world. Whether your spiritual life, whatever that means to you, is enough for you.

When it comes to exercise, one of the truisms I always heard is that something is better than nothing. You don’t need to be at the gym five days a week, or to run marathons. That’s all great if you can do it, and if you want to. But parking a little further away in the parking lot, taking the stairs rather than the elevator, eating a bit healthier — all of these little things can move the needle, even if just a little bit.

You don’t need to meditate for an hour a day, or lose yourself in prayer every Shabbat, or read deep, philosophical spiritual works (although, those are all great things to do, if you can and want to, obviously). All you need to do is decide whether you want to move that particular needle, even if just a little bit.

I can’t promise who you’ll be if you try. But I hope you’re curious to find out.

Grace

I’d like to talk for a moment about grace. It’s something we don’t talk about often enough in Judaism, probably because it’s talked about so often by our Christian neighbors that it’s started to feel somehow un-Jewish, but it’s not. Not in the least. “Grace” is simply the idea of unearned blessings — of having something not because we deserve it, but simply because it was given to us by someone (or some One) who wanted us to have it.

The American story, built so firmly on the ideas of self-reliance and hard work, is that that which we earn is so much better than that which is handed to us. I’m not sure about which is actually better or worse (it’s probably a meaningless question), but it’s actually wonderful to have something not because we’ve earned it, but because it simply came to us. Maybe out of luck, more likely out of love.

When I walk outside on a beautiful day, did I earn that? No — it was given to me in grace. Part of why I enjoy days like that so much (and part of why I dream of them during this hot, miserable time of Florida summer) is because they aren’t controllable, and they aren’t predictable. I can’t make them happen; I can simply enjoy them, and be grateful for them when they show up.

You may know that I love whiskey. Some of my favorite bottles were gifts. So, not only do they taste delicious, but they remind me of the friends and loved ones who gave them to me. A bottle that I buy myself is just as delicious, but then again, not really. Not in the fullest sense. Earned is fine. Given, though, adds a sweetness.


Here’s the trick, though. Everything is given through grace. Every single thing that we have, even the things that we’ve worked hardest for, are in large part not earned, but graced to us. That’s the message from this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Ekev:

When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget Adonai your God, who freed you from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage,…and you say to yourselves, “My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.”

Deuteronomy 8:12-14, 17

Never, ever say, “I did this.” Never, ever say, “I earned this.” And, certainly never, ever say, “I deserve this.” I deserve none of it. I am entitled to none of it.

This doesn’t mean that we don’t have to work hard for the things we want. It doesn’t mean that everything that we want or need is just going to magically fall into our laps. It’s worth noticing that the things that the Torah is talking about are, by our usual accounting, earned. It talks about eating, probably from fields which we tended with our own hands. It talks about living in houses which we built with our own sweat and blisters. It talks about our herds and flocks which we raised, painstakingly, year after year. These are the things of which we feel we should be the most proud, the things which we feel we earned ourselves. But, not even they are earned. Not in full.

Sure, you tilled the soil with your own hands. Mazel Tov. Well done. One question — who gave you those hands? Who made the soil? Who made it possible for plants to grow in soil? You built a house, and raised some animals? Amazing! Who gave you a brain capable of understanding how to care for your animals, or how to level off your roof?


This message is obviously thousands of years old, but it’s especially appropriate for those of us living in 21st-century America. We have so, so much, and however hard we may have worked for it, each and every one of us has it, in large part, simply because we were lucky to be born in 21st-century America. Even right now, during this time of pandemic and quarantine, most of us, maybe all of us, have so much to be thankful for. I’m not trying to be a Pollyanna here. There are plenty of legitimate reasons to kvetch right now, and for some of us, there is reason to despair.

But, for most of us, can we take a moment and realize that the struggle that we’re going through — and it is a real struggle — is still 1000 times better than the lives that most people who have ever lived could even dream of? I don’t want to minimize the struggle, because the pain is real, and the fear is real — for me, and probably for you. But, at the same time, can we look around and be aware of the great grace, the great unearned blessings, which permeate our lives?

I have so much. And, even though I worked very hard for most of it, none of it — not one single bit — is truly the work of my own hands, the sweat of my own brow. If I am born in a different part of the world, or a century or two ago, or with a few molecules of DNA rearranged, then I’ve got none of this. None of the things which I own, and which I currently, petulantly, find inadequate. None of the people in my life who make it a life worth living. None of it. Not one single bit. That’s what I mean by grace.

This is as hard of a time as I’ve live through. And, it’s still a gloriously blessed life I’m living. Every day, even the days when I wake up and go to sleep feeling stressed, angry, and miserable, is a miracle and a blessing. It’s a gift. It’s grace.

(You’ll excuse me for sharing this one again…)

“What Is Given”

The likelihood of finding strawberries
tiny and wild and sweet
around your ankles
on any given day
in any given place
is not great
but sometimes
people find strawberries
right where they are standing
just because it is their turn
to be given a taste
of something wild and sweet

Ralph Murre

Windy Days and Wild Strawberries

I’ve never been much into poetry – I’ve never really found my way into it, for the most part. But, that’s changed a bit over the past few years. It started with my work with the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. There was poetry sprinkled regularly throughout our meditation and worship experiences, and something about the poems that were selected, the contexts in which we encountered them, the way they were read and, probably, the amount of trust and love I had for my teachers, made them “work” for me.

I use those poems, and a few others I found along the way, from time to time. Sometimes, they find their way into services. Often, I use them in various meditation settings. But, I’ve been doing a lot more “alternative readings” during services since we been online (they just seem to work better than sticking 100% to the standard service right now) and a whole lot more Mindfulness work during quarantine. So, I’ve had to greatly expand my repertoire, and to my great surprise, I’ve been loving it — I’ve found a few sources with poems which really speak to me, and hopefully to those I’ve been sharing them with.

That’s all a long introduction to how I came across this one poem which I used to open our daily “Mindfulness Moment” just a little while ago:

What Is Given, by Ralph Murre

The likelihood of finding strawberries
tiny and wild and sweet
around your ankles
on any given day
in any given place
is not great
but sometimes
people find strawberries
right where they are standing
just because it is their turn
to be given a taste
of something wild and sweet

I love this simple little idea of enjoying the small moments of wonder and blessing which we stumble upon, from time to time. They’re unpredictable, and uncontrollable, and I think that’s part of what makes them so wonderful. I’m not talking about life-changing, “heavens open up and Angels Sing” kinds of moments. I’m just talking about ordinary moments which wind up being so much more extraordinary than we expected, or have any right to.


Last night, as I was getting tired and closer to heading upstairs, I wasn’t quite sure what to do with myself. I wound up grabbing a new pair of headphones I love, and sitting on the floor while listening to a few of my favorite songs, watching my dog gnaw away on a bone. It was just perfect. I was tired, but not too tired. I was listening to those kinds of songs which make me wistful and sentimental*. I was having all sorts of feels about my dog. It was just…right. You know those moments I’m talking about? Like I said — not big, or life-changing. Just sweet. Delicious.

* I’m not a huge Tom Waits fan, but man does his music fit these moods

This morning, the four of us went to the beach. We been doing this almost every Monday for a couple of months now. We go to the beach a lot, and we all love it, but it’s been different, this past little bit. The kids are older now, which makes it a lot easier — there’s less stuff to haul, and more hands to help, and less fighting and nudging about the whole thing. Plus, we usually go for only a couple of hours now, which means that we’re back home before it gets too hot and uncomfortable, or before any of us get tired. And, like everyone these days, we all need a few hours to relax and get away from it all, to say the least. So, it’s been a great little habit for us.

But, today? Today was just awesome. It’s obviously been pretty brutally hot here for a while. But, today the wind was up. It was a constant, heavy blow coming in from offshore, it just made the whole thing so much more comfortable. Plus, that meant that there were actually a few waves – nothing that would impress anyone who lives on either ocean, but enough to maybe knock you over if you weren’t paying attention, and enough to catch a few seconds of a ride on a boogie board. Kids laughing, salt burning my eyes, Hillary enjoying a book on the shore, families we didn’t know playing a safe distance from us, birds swooping all over the place, gorgeous stacks of clouds filling the sky – it really couldn’t have gotten much better than it was for those couple of hours.


If you’re reading this, you’re probably stressed out. I mean, the only way not to be stressed out right now is to be living in a pretty deep state of denial, right? I’m walking around with a knot in my stomach more often than not, and I’m not sleeping well (which, from what I read, is a bit of an epidemic right now), and I’m working too much, and still falling behind – but really, not in a way that’s different from probably every single one of you. We’re all in simlar places. Not to get too technical, but things pretty much suck, right now.

But, not everything. Not all the time. Sometimes, unpredictably and uncontrollably, everything falls into place. Maybe just for a few moments, maybe for a couple of hours. But, it does happen. For just a slice of time, it can be right. Why? I don’t know – I guess it’s just my turn.

The only reason it’s worth sharing this is a certainty I have that these wonderful, precious moments are more likely to happen if we are open to them. If, despite all the very real stress out there, and inside of us, we let ourselves also pay attention to these little sparks of perfection.

May your music fill your ears, the wind blow steadily in from offshore, and sweet strawberries be found around your feet.

The Torah of a Bad Back

Sunday, I threw out my back a little bit. That stunk, but it did give me a chance to think about an idea I’ve had trouble expressing, so I’ve got that going for me…

Let me start with the idea. Mindfulness deals a lot with the idea of acceptance – the idea that we have to accept the reality in which we find ourselves. The idea that directly facing our reality, however uncomfortable or painful it may be at any given moment, is the only way to fully live and, a bit ironically, often eases our pain. The Buddhists teach that suffering and pain aren’t exactly the same thing — suffering is pain mixed with resistance. It’s our resistance to the pain that transforms it into something worse. Accepting the pain – the pain as it really is, not the larger story we build around most of the time — actually lessens its impact on us.

The problem is that this sounds an awful lot like giving up. It sometimes sounds like I’m saying that if we just give up and give in, then the suffering will be over. Trying to change anything is futile, so only pain lies that way. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about the personal (“my back hurts”) or the societal (“our country is racist”); it’s futile and ultimately destructive to try to fight that. That’s not at all what I’m actually trying to say, but sometimes it’s hard for me to express what the difference is between accepting reality and giving into it.

Luckily, my balky back explains it perfectly.

I’ve thrown out my back any number of times now. And, after all these years, I know the routine pretty well. Most of the time, I’m doing something pretty innocuous, but I make a move and suddenly feel a sharp stabbing sensation in my lower back. I instantly know: this is the start of a pretty bad couple of days, at least. Sometimes, I can barely move. Sometimes, it’s not really that bad, but any wrong move just brings another stab, and another worry that it might be getting a lot worse before it gets better.

At this point, I usually have a few different thoughts and emotions coursing through my head. First, I am kind of pissed. If I was being careless and that’s why I hurt myself, then I’m mad at myself. If I wasn’t doing anything stupid, then I’m mad at my body — I mean, I’ve been working out and trying to take care of this for years, and I can still get laid up by bending over to pick up a sock the wrong way?!? Come on!

I also start to get stressed out or irritated about what I’m going to have to deal with, and what I’m going to have to miss in the next couple of days. Can I go to the beach with my family tomorrow, like we had planned to? Can I sit at my desk for the meetings I have? Can I drive somewhere? Can it do these chores I was hoping to get done?

In other words, I’m angry about how I got here, and I’m stressed and angry about what’s going to happen as a result.

And then, usually, I can take a deep breath, and get over it. Well, mostly over it. But, still…

What does it mean to get over it? Well, it certainly doesn’t mean that I’m happy about the situation. I don’t like the pain, and I don’t like the limitations, and I don’t like feeling old, and I don’t like sleeping badly. I don’t like a whole lot of things about this.

But, it’s done. It’s happened. For reasons good or bad, my back is out. For reasons good or bad, the rest of today is going to be a different day than I had planned for, or than I had hoped for. And no amount of kicking or screaming* is going to change that. It’s only gonna make me angrier, and more irritated. And, if past history is any guide, it will also make me more likely to do something stupid, reinjure myself, and prolong this pain.

* metaphorically; I really shouldn’t be kicking anything at this point

That doesn’t mean that there’s nothing I can do about it. I can take some medicine to help the pain go away and the muscles relax. I can try to keep moving, to keep the muscles loose*. I can apply heat, and make sure I’m sitting or lying in a good position. And, I can recommit to the things which are supposed to help prevent this from happening, or least make it happen less often, such as stretching and strengthening.

* For years, the constant advice was to ice my back as quickly as possible, and not move for a while. Now, that seems to be exactly the wrong thing to do — cold eases the pain but actually slows the healing, and not moving lets the muscles tighten up more quickly. I could be angry about having years of bad advice, but what does that buy me now?

And, I do all of that. I do the best that I can to ease my pain and speed my recovery. And, I try to recommit to taking better care of my (aging, creaky) body. And, I do it all while knowing that none of it, not one single bit, will change what just happened.

I accept the reality that is, not because I want or intend to give up. But, because I understand that I can’t change it. I can work with it, but I can’t make it not so. Pretending that my back isn’t hurt will only hurt it some more. Living with it, as best as I can, is the best way through it.

Reality is what it is. I don’t have to like it, and I don’t have to surrender to it completely. But, I do have to submit to it.

I just shared this recently, but it’s a favorite and awfully applicable, so…

Prayer, by Galway Kinnell

Whatever happens. Whatever.

what is is is what

I want. Only that. But that.

“What is is is what I want.” I want to get to the place where I can say “what is, is.” Because, that’s where everything really begins.

By the way—this time, I was really lucky. My back was feeling a lot better yesterday, and by today I’m pretty much back to full strength. Was it because I took care of it, or because that’s how things happened this time? No way to know. All I can do is react as best as I can, and be thankful for whatever good comes my way.

What is is.

Hope In the Future Tense

When I was younger, I heard a story about a tribe which had no concept of time. As I remember it, it was some small tribe in the jungles of South America, and supposedly this people had never developed any concept of past or future; all that existed was an eternal “now.” And, apparently, this became an enormous problem because Western Colonialists came in and, for whatever reason, wound up imprisoning many of the members of the tribe.

The members of this tribe killed themselves in jail at an enormous rate. You see, once they were in jail, because they didn’t have any concept of the future, all they knew was the misery of this existence, and the implicit assumption that life would go on this way forever. They fell into instant, existential despair because they were literally unable to imagine things ever getting better than they were in that dark moment.

I’m pretty sure that the story was fictional, even though it was presented to me as “absolute fact.” But, real or not, it stuck with me because of that core insight — it’s our ability to imagine a better future which allows us to survive a distressing present.

It’s one of those observations which feels somewhat obvious, but profoundly important at the same time. It is precisely our ability to understand that our current situation is not permanent, that the pain that we’re feeling at any given moment may resolve, that tomorrow has potential to be so much better than today, that gives us the strength to persevere. And, conversely, that despair comes not primarily from pain or misery, but from a lack of hope. I can make it through almost anything if I believe that it’s temporary. If I think that my current suffering will never end, there’s almost nothing that I can handle.

The Torah actually shows us this in a pretty subtle way. This week’s Torah portion, Korach, talks about a rebellion against Moses and Aaron, led by a few leaders of the Israelite people. They rise up against Moses and Aaron, accusing them of taking on too much power, of lording it over the people. They use what, in the Torah, qualifies as pretty vicious, unfair arguments, accusing them of taking us out on the land of milk and honey, rather than out of the land of misery and bondage (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls this the earliest recorded incident of Fake News).

What led to this rebellion? Why did these malcontents rise up now, as opposed to any time before? The hint might come not in this week’s Torah portion, but in last week’s. Last week, our people scouted the Holy Land preparation for entering it, and got so scared by what they saw that they refused to go. God punishes them for their refusal, and for their lack of faith, by condemning them all to die in the desert; only their offspring would get to enter into the Holy Land.

In essence, God said to them, “This miserable desert experience was supposed to be temporary, and was going to end soon with you living in the best place you could ever imagine. Now, instead, this is what you get. This dry, boring, uncomfortable limbo-like life is it. This is your present and your future; get used to it.” No wonder rebellion started immediately. The leaders of the rebellion were lashing out, because they had lost their future, and so they had lost all hope. Even if we don’t condone what they did, or how they did it, maybe we can understand the pain which led to it.

Do I even have to draw the parallel?

Sure. Why not?

This stinks. Living in semi-quarantine is pretty awful. Living with a constant background buzz of fear of a disease is terrible. Many of us not being sure about our jobs, or our financial security? Not being able to see people we love? Not being able to go to the places which bring us comfort? Not being able to join together in prayerful song? Not being able to not being able to not being able to? Not to get too fancy in my language, but it sucks. Deeply.

Which is why it is so absolutely essential, so fundamentally, primarily important that we remember that this too shall pass. That there will come a time when we’ll be able to hug our friends. That there will come a time when we’ll be able to talk to each other from less than 6 feet away, to go to our gyms, or a movie theater, or the mall, and to do so without making a careful, nervous risk-assessment.

The story of that tribe without a future was a myth, probably made up by some kid. But, the lesson from it was undeniably true. Hope is a future tense verb. We get through hard times not by telling ourselves that it’s all alright, because it sometimes isn’t. We get through by reminding ourselves that tomorrow always has the chance to be better.

Hope is light in the darkness. Hope is life.

“…Not by the color of their skin”

I saw the above tweet today, and it brought up a rant that I’ve had, mostly in my head, for some time how. And, since I can’t seem to stop thinking about racism today (and, frankly, don’t think that I should stop), I thought I might as well share it.

People with more conservative leanings, especially when it comes to racial issues, love to quote one particular line from one particular Martin Luther King speech: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Whenever someone brings up racial injustice, or especially if someone suggests some way to counter-balance the pervasive racism in our society, you can be sure that some pundit will soon appear and quote King. “I thought we were trying to make a society where people aren’t judged by their race, but you make that impossible by continually bringing race into the conversation! Let’s move past that!”

Because of how I’m feeling today, I’ll be a bit less polite than usual and say that I am so f$%*ing sick of that argument.

First of all, it is a ridiculous cherry picking of King. King wrote and spoke a lot, and his overall body of work makes it abundantly clear that he did not believe in a non-racial society. He did not dream of a society where no one saw race, where no one believed that Blacks and Whites (and others) were at all different. He simply believed in a society where African Americans could be given the same rights, and could be judged on the same scales of merit, as Whites.

I want to be treated fairly, even though I’m a Jew. I want the same access to education, to businesses, to government, to my rights. But, I don’t want to live in a world where there are no religions, where the distinction between Jews and Christians and Buddhists and atheists just go away.

I want to be respected around the world, as an American. But, I don’t want or expect that all countries will merge into one, and “American” will no longer mean anything.

I could probably go on with dozens of more examples, but you get the idea. Treating everyone equally does not mean treating everyone identically*.

* And, if you’re going to challenge the semantics, don’t bother. I’m not here to argue over word definitions.

But, how do we get to that point? How do we get to a world where people aren’t being treated unfairly because of the color of their skin? Well, one thing I know is that you don’t do so by pretending that we’re already there. You don’t do so by pretending that the world is fair, when it so clearly isn’t.

You don’t level a physical field by pretending that it’s already level, by treating the entirety of the field in the same way. That, in fact, is how you would keep the field un-level. And, yelling at the people who are willing to go out and do the hard work of making it level? That’s just ignorant, or betrays a deep love of un-level fields.

King had a dream of a better society, not of people pretending to already live in one. Our society, the one we actually live in, is deeply, foundationally racist. It is a society in which people are very much judged by the color of their skin, not the content of their characters. If we want to reach a better world, a world of which King dreamed, we have to act. Refusing to see the world as it is, to see racism, to name it, and to work against it is the opposite of working for that dream.

You have the right, of course, to feel that mentioning race is counter-productive. But, please, stop using one out-of-context quote from the greatest Civil Rights leader to do so. And, please, stop pretending that, in doing so, you stand with King.

Comfort the Afflicted, Or Afflict the Comfortable?

[Sometimes I have a point to make. Sometimes, I just ramble. I’m not sure which this is…]

I just commented one someone else’s Facebook post, and while I was figuring out that comment, I managed to clarify something, which seemed worth sharing.

Like a lot of us, I suspect, I’ve been feeling a tension in our reaction to our (collective) quarantine. Most of the people that I know personally are coming from an incredibly privileged place. I’m a perfect example of this–I still have my job, and I haven’t been asked to take a pay cut (at least, not yet!). I have health insurance. I have a job I can do from home, and I’ve got a home which has a room I can use as my office. We can get groceries (and I’m married to an amazing cook). I could go on and on, but the upshot is this–in reality, this whole thing has been an enormous pain in the tush, but nothing worse than that. It hasn’t been traumatic; it’s been annoying.

My kids have had their lives disrupted more. Online school has been hard, but worse is what comes next. My daughter can’t go to camp this summer, and she loves camp. My son was supposed to be one of the Regional Songleaders this upcoming year, and that’s very possibly dead, at least in large part. These things really matter to them, but let’s be honest, none of this really counts as a tragedy. No one is dying from any of this. It all pales in comparison to what some other people are facing, as well as in comparison to what people faced in former crises. And, from what I can tell, most of our friends, acquaintances and congregants are in the same general boat–terribly inconvenienced and disrupted, but not brutalized.

So, then, here is the tension–how do I process it when I hear people (including myself) complaining?

On the one hand, I understand that pain is pain. That the pain of not being able to go to camp this summer is real for my daughter, even if it’s not 1% of the pain of someone who lost a loved one, or who lost a job. The pain of boredom is real, even if “stuck at home with a pool and Netflix” isn’t exactly a terminal case of boredom. Suffering is an experience, not an objective fact, and if someone feels as if they are suffering, then they are.

On the other hand…come on. How whiny can we all get? I mean, my Facebook feed is filled with people who are kvetching about their situation, and most of them are no worse off than I am. And, I really shouldn’t hide behind the 3rd person here–I am stressed, and I am having trouble sleeping. There are people in this world who would give anything for my current life–it’s unthinkably better than their “normal” day-to-day. How dare I? How dare any of us?

So, as a rabbi, as a person, what’s my approach? Do I comfort people in their time of need, or do I challenge people to have perspective, and save their pity for those who deserve it. I know that the answer is “both,” but just leaving it at that feels a bit facile to me.

So, here’s what became clear. This tension between “comfort the afflicted” and “afflict the comfortable” is real. But I wonder if the “solution” is to not worry about resolving it on a case-by-case basis. Getting people to think about the balance between their sense of pain and their sense of gratitude is incredibly important. Telling them which to feel, in what amount, at what times, is pointless. Living with the tension between the two isn’t a cop-out; it’s real. Living without that tension–letting ourselves be only stressed or only grateful might be the real copout.

I truly am somewhat embarrassed by how stressed I’ve been. My life is an embodied winning lottery ticket, and I’m tossing and turning with worry more nights than not. It’s ridiculous, and self-indulgent. But, it’s real. I can tell myself (indeed, I do) that I should feel lucky, and in most ways I do. But, that doesn’t make the stress less real. I can mock myself (yep) for being “weak,” but I am what I am, and I feel what I feel. I won’t just give into it, because reminding myself how lucky I am is a big part of how I get through those stressful days, and it’s also a way to avoid being completely solipsistic and ridiculous. But, I also know that “should” is a dangerous word–what I should feel is largely irrelevant. What I do feel is what I feel, regardless of what that is.

Without realizing it, I’m coming back around in this post to one of my favorite poems from my time with IJS:

Prayer, by Galway Kinnell
Whatever happens. Whatever.
what is is is what 
I want. Only that. But that.

“What is is is what I want.” I want to get to the point that I can say “What is, is.” I want to be able to say that, not because I want to give into reality and stop fighting. Not because I want to give up. But, because it’s true. What is, is. Everything starts with that.

Two truths, at the same moment. I am stressed and distressed. And, I am lucky and grateful. That is.

And, you?

Names

Names are pretty silly.

What I mean is, the idea of names and, more to the point, caring about names is silly. Why do we pretend that a person’s name carries any real significance to it? My name was given to me by my parents before they ever really knew me. It has no more connection to me as a person – says nothing more about my personality, my hopes and dreams, my destiny — than the name of the doctor who delivered me, the weather on the day of my birth, or just about anything else you can think of. It’s a mostly arbitrary label, nothing more.

But, it also is, very much, who I am. I mean, I can’t imagine changing my name. I can’t imagine how strange it would be to suddenly have people start calling me David (my Hebrew name), or Stephen (why Stephen? Why not?), or Judy (the idea that calling me a typically female name would somehow make me less masculine is even more crazy if you think about it for just a second). I know plenty of people who have changed their names, and it’s mostly been a meaningful experience for them. And, it’s always been somewhat disorienting for me – I suddenly have to call them by something different, and it somehow feels like am being introduced to a new person. It makes no sense, but that doesn’t make it any less real.

Silly or not, names are powerful.

A couple of days ago, the New York Times filled its front page with a list of almost 1000 names, each of them a victim of COVID-19. It did so as a way to honor them, and by extension the rest of the nearly 100,000 people who have died (so far) in this pandemic. Why? According to Simone Landon, assistant editor of the Times’ Graphics desk, it was more powerful than just putting up a dot for each of the victims, or something similar.

I’m cheating here a bit, because each victim also got a sentence about them, but everyone I heard talking about it referred to the list of names. It made it real.

When I read about this display, it struck me as serendipitous, because I had just talked about the same idea on Shabbat. Last week, we read Parashat Bamidbar, which includes a census of the people. Moses is told to count them “Bamispar Shemot,” by the number of their names. That means, we are told, that rather than just count them, he was to have them write their names on slips of paper, and count those. According to Nahmanides, this was to make sure that Moses thought of each person as a person*, not just as a number. Each one had an identity, and a history, and a destiny. They each had a name.

* Actually, he was to count each adult male. The ignoring of the women and children is made even worse by the deeper meaning of the names. That’s not the point of this post, but it needs to be mentioned.

At the risk of beating a dead horse here, why should that make it any better? Why should someone knowing my name, and nothing else about me, make me any more real to them? It just doesn’t make sense.

It doesn’t make sense, but it’s real.

The Tampa Rabbinical Association has started observing Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, by having people read names of people who died in the Shoah (a beautiful idea we got from the Florida Holocaust Museum). And, I’m here to tell you that I find it to be an incredibly powerful ritual. When I read the names, I am overcome with the reality of their murder. There’s just something about reading name after name, some of them sounding familiar, some distant and foreign, which brings home the reality of that evil more than almost anything else. This year, I had to record my reading for the museum, and I got choked up just practicing the names. It’s inescapably present.

It’s the same power which fills the Vietnam Memorial in DC. In a city overflowing with glorious architecture and stunning monuments, is there any place as filled with drama and meaning as this simple etching of name after name after name? Today is Memorial Day, and to me, there’s no more poignant or powerful way to memorialize people who died for this country than by simply making sure that their names are never lost to history.

I really can’t tell you why names are so important, only that they are. In literature, in memorials, in scripture, in life, our names testify, in some strange, beautiful way, to the people we really are.

In the words of the poet Zelda:

EACH OF US HAS A NAME

Each of us has a name
given by God
and given by our parents

Each of us has a name
given by our stature and our smile
and given by what we wear

Each of us has a name
given by the mountains
and given by our walls

Each of us has a name
given by the stars
and given by our neighbors

Each of us has a name
given by our sins
and given by our longing

Each of us has a name
given by our enemies
and given by our love

Each of us has a name
given by our celebrations
and given by our work

Each of us has a name
given by the seasons
and given by our blindness

Each of us has a name
given by the sea
and given by
our death.