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Archive for November, 2013

Giving thanks

Next week I am singing in an interfaith Thanksgiving service. The pastor of the host church has asked for members of the various faith communities to step forward in expressing Thanks Giving of an unusual kind: being thankful for their faith tradition itself. The assignment is to answer in just 2 or three sentences. The request was greeted at first with silence of the choir members. “That’s really hard to do, especially to explain to outsiders,” commented one singer. It reminds me of the challenge to Rabbi’s Hillel and Shamai: “if you can explain your tradition to me while standing on one foot, I will convert,” announced the seeker. Shammai sent the stranger away, annoyed, but Hillel accepted the challenge. “What is hateful to you do not do to another. The rest is commentary: go and study,” responded Rav Hillel. I decided to give this challenge a try, so, while standing on one foot, here is why I’m thankful:

I am so very grateful for this Jewish tradition, it has given me my life
It is a time machine: memories of delicious and melodic Holidays at Grandma’s bless my children’s lives as I teach them of their heritage
It’s treasury of wisdom gives me roots & grounds me, informing me how to give, and love, and see with eyes of radical amazement (in the words of Rav Heschel)
And In Becoming a part of its music I have found my voice and my heart’s wings.
Thank You
(I will put my foot back down now)



Jacob is finally going home. It’s been twenty years since he fled a brother swearing vengeance, and that same brother is approaching with 400 soldiers. Jacob must literally come face to face with his past as trickster, lier and thief. It is getting dark, and his entourage has made camp. Herds of animals, four wives, twelve children, riches, guards and servants. He calls for Rachel and Leah and his eldest sons. “Pick up stakes, move out across the river. Right now!” he commands. “Also, we must split up for safety into two groups. I am staying behind tonight, and will cross the river to meet you all in the morning.” As the boys leave to orchestrate the night crossing, Rachel and Leah linger. “Jacob, it’s the hour of the wolf and the ruffian. If you stay alone tonight who knows what will emerge from the night to consume you?” they whispered in fear. “I cannot keep you safe until I emerge from this darkness that weighs my spirit. I need to find some insight this night, I need to find…some strength. I know I cannot cross until I face….” his voice trailed. The women nodded, departing.
Perhaps this was the scene that preceded the Torah’s famous wrestling match. Jacob remained alone, and yet a man wrestled with him until the dawn was beginning to rise. The desperate wrestler displaced Jacob’s hip from his socket, but Jacob would not release his hold. Jacob will limp his whole life now. The mysterious stranger begs to be let go because dawn is rising (a river demon? an angel? his brother? himself?) “I won’t release you unless you bless me!” is Jake’s response. The man not only blesses him but renames him Yisrael, “wrestler with God” and so Jacob releases the man. He names the place of the struggle Pineal: face of God, and declares that his soul has been saved. He now is able to cross a river and find the road home, confront and enable reconciliation with his twin brother.
A song by Dave Wilcox, “Farthest Shore” puts into reality a need to be alone before crossing the rivers in our path. In this alone-ness we have the potential to find our values, our self. Jacob separates himself from all his possessions, his powerful sons, his defenses. Interestingly he fails to mention his daughter Dina in the list of things sent across. This dismissal, this lack, is mirrored in Dina’s being alone soon, and hurt, and then disappearing from this family. In this song, “Farthest Shore” the composer loses a home to fire. In this past year many on the Jersey and New York shore were similarly displaced from their possessions. Those I know found strength in family and community, in the aftermath of disaster.
Farthest Shore by David Wilcox

We were there in the wood by the water.
Left our pack up against the willow tree.
We dove right in keeping just what we were born with,
Our memories, knowledge and our dreams.
As I swam far away from our possessions,
I imagined they were gone forever more.
And for once I was glad that all I treasured
would still be with me as I reached the other shore
So let me dive into the water, leave behind all that I’ve worked for, except what I remember and believe.
And when I stand on the farthest shore, I will have all I need.
When the blaze turned our cabin into ashes,
where we slept warm now the sky lets in the rain
I found the strings and the frets and rusted latches,
but I will never hear that old guitar again.
These four walls are only in my memory,
these stone steps rise to nothing in the air
One last look and I’m headed to the river,
to wash my hands and try to say this prayer:
Let me dive into the water, leave behind all that I’ve worked for, except what I remember and believe.
And when I stand on the farthest shore, I will have all I need….

sound file and complete lyric

In this Place

My student Manny (name changed) spoke up from the back row. We were discussing mental health issues in a Biology course. “I have PTSD”, he quietly shared with us. “I’m a Marine, and I was in Afghanistan.”
PTSD: post traumatic stress disorder. Memories are strongly linked to emotion. From the zillion moments we experience each day, memory of those that impact our emotions serves to help us avoid danger and remember the pathways to paradise. But sometimes we’re overwhelmed and re-live memories too intense to handle.
A fearful journey my young student has undertaken. Can God be in those horrific places, in the darkness of terror?” The kid is going through a really rough time. It’s a hard question to answer. Another journey from ancient times:

Running from Beersheva to Haran, from a watered oasis to return to the place Grandfather left so long ago, Jacob lies down for the sun has gone, to dream a dream.  And Behold there is a ladder with its feet in the earth and it’s head in the heavens, and there are messengers/angels going up and going down. And God stood over Jacob and spoke to him! Promises. “I am with you” Jacob awoke. Truly God is in this place and I, i did not know.
Each place in time and space can be filled with God.
If we dream and let the dream inspire so that we become aware.
And we are ladders. Our feet rooted in this good earth. And there are angels of God in us – messages that originate in our rootedness and make their way to our loftiest hopes and ideals, if we let them.  We need to be rooted, and to be angels for one another, that we must dream and reach for the heavens….
And Jacob felt fear and awe when he awoke.
And my student, Manny felt fear, and is struggling to find the angels, and to know that God is with him. Though the universe hums with potential, and God’s presence can be in any place or time we allow divinity to enter,  maybe war and cruelty drive that away.
Jacob eventually returns from his exile to the promised land. He is with his own family now: to face his demons, to wrestle and to become humble. Broken, and limping, but he can return.  I wish Manny victory over the demons he wrestles with, to return, to make space for the divine in his life (and I wish we would stop making overwhelming situations into which we send our sons and daughters).

Music for this parashah: Noah Aronson’s This place: it’s stunning! or my own: Between  Archives: Between, Nov 2012


I am writing this on Halloween, as the Torah portion involves costumes, and tricks and perhaps a treat.

“Listen to my voice” whispers the mother of twins to her youngest, Yaakov. She is talking to a son she loves without qualifications. “Dad is blind, you are the one that must be blessed by him. You are the one prophesied to carry on in this family and rule” “But Dad will know it’s not me, and he will curse me…” And so Momma Rivka gives her son a costume: Hairy arms, and her other twin’s best robe, and a meal to ply Dad with. Father Isaac hears: The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the Hands are the hands of Esau. Who are you, my son?! Jacob lies, “It’s me, Dad, your oldest son, the one you love. and Isaac ignores the voice of truth, of Jacob and is tricked.  And so is Big Brother Esav “Don’t you have a blessing for me too father?!!! “Your brother stole your blessing, and he’ll stay blessed” Seriously?  I will kill him, vows big brother Esav. (This is a vow the very first brother, Cain kept). Always grabbing, pretending to be what we are not. And it wasn’t even Halloween!  Isn’t honesty best – this could easily have led to murder! And yet in spite of their parents’ mistakes, in spite of lies and tricks, Brothers do not kill each other.  To whose voice do we listen. Only to the voice of love.
A story: A farmer raised two sons in the way of the field – plowing and planting and harvesting – always together, and of supporting one another. The boys grew to men, and the oldest married and had a family, and the younger remained single. Sadly, the father died, but he left the farm to both sons equally. The older son lived in the house with his family, and the younger in a cabin on the far side of the farm. They did all the farm work together: plowing, weeding and harvesting. And they always split each harvest exactly in even halves.  One night the younger could not sleep: It’s really not fair to my brother to share the harvest equally,he thought, he has a family to feed, he needs so much more. So, in the black of night, he carried bundles of grain across the field, as much as his arms to carry, and sneaked them into his big brother’s silo.  On that same night, big brother could not sleep either.  I have so much, I’m blessed!  he thought.  A family to help me and take care of me when I grow old. My little brother has nobody! It’s not fair that we divide the harvest equally.  And so, can you guess? He also sneaked out and carried as much as his arms could to place precious harvest in his brother’s silo.  Each brother, the next morning was shocked and confused to find their stores still full. And so the next night this sneaking around at night was repeated. And the third night. And on the fourth night, somehow, in the dark they ran into one another. What are you doing here! each asked, but then light dawned on them, and not just from their lanterns! When each realized that his brother had been doing the same as he, they dropped their bundles, embraced and cried tears of love and gratefulness! And the legends of our people say that it is on that hill, in the place that would one day become Jerusalem, that God instructed Solomon to construct the Temple, so that rules of love and kindness could spread through the world. Because of the love of two brothers. Going back to our trickster, Esav will not kill his brat kid brother, love will triumph, that’s the treat.

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