Identity and Power

Who is powerful?  The one who contains his passion and fury.  (Wisdom of the Ancestors 4:1)


Tragic violent murders enacted by guns. Again and again and again. Two brothers, nephews of a dear member of our community, held onto their souls in a dark room of the school as other lives were taken in their midst.  Before any words, kneel in silence before that which transpired, honor the lives interrupted, the deeds of courage, and the pain that remains.


I’m frustrated by the memes and tropes that appear on the web in the aftermath of these horrors. They have been spoken before and they bring little change.  Small words are better left unsaid.


The Republicans funded by the NRA soapboxing in the aftermath of this tragedy look horribly stupid, spewing bullshit excuses that measures besides gun legislation should be taken to prevent future tragedies.  In the depths of their souls, they know it’s a deal with the devil they’ve made, trading goodness for power.  That’s why their faces twinge and their words ring false – because they know.  And though I don’t quite believe in hell, I do believe these senators and congress-folk will be punished with gruesome spiritual castigations when they get there. 


But the unending chorus from Democrats, that gun legislation is the only way forward also seems flawed.  They are hoping to do away with all the weapons that lie in wait for would be perpetrators of violence.  But the outer effort has proved futile for too long.  Maybe it’s an inner leap that’s necessary first – a gentler consideration of the identity and feelings of gun owners and gun rights activists.  Let’s understand, or at least ask after the psychology of gun owners and guns.  We live in a time of political polarization, and few take the time to try to understand the mindset of those they vehemently disagree with.  Let’s attempt to balance that scale.  It’s a question of identity, and of power.


First, when gun rights activists trace their history back to the 2nd amendment, they establish a lineage of ancestors in whose footsteps they follow.  Every time they pick up their weapon, the act carries greater significance because it falls not into the realm of hobby, but tradition.  Like their father and grandfather before them, all the way back to the founding fathers.  Imagine how you would feel if someone tried to legislate away the ancient traditions your family holds most dear.  (I believe that neither this narrative, nor the one most Jews tell themselves about their traditions are historically accurate, but historicity doesn’t undercut the meaning those narratives offer their storytellers. If we are to make any real progress on gun legislation, it will begin with gestures that honor the identities of gun advocates).


The epigraph above, from the Wisdom of the Ancestors, is wise because it’s not obvious. Who is powerful? The one who contains his passions and fury. Most people would answer that either someone’s physical size and strength, or their wealth, grants them power.  It’s only the devotee of a spiritual path, the mystic and the yogi, who can offer that strength of mind and emotional self-control are true measures of power. 


There is a direct correlation between guns and power – between each person’s perspective on guns and gun legislation, and their own sense of power.  The great chasm of our political landscape may lie in the answer to this question.  In recent years America has made great strides in the direction supported by progressives: gay marriage is legalized, Black Lives Matter is a national movement effecting change, #MeToo is demolishing oppressive male power centers with great speed.  All these changes – how do they affect our sense of power or powerlessness?  Progressives answer – ‘Change makes me feel powerful. I have no need for a gun, we need guns taken away.’  Conservatives hawk back – ‘All the changes make me feel powerless. I’m disappearing. I want my gun.  It’s my right.’  When people feel powerless, they become vehement about the values and stories that sustain them.  They see things in black and white, without shades of gray – a handgun and an assault rifle are the same. 


But the Wisdom of the Ancestors isn’t entirely spot on.  Self control may be the measure of true power, but certain prerequisites are necessary before its cultivation can begin.  We need to be immersed in communities that honor all of the different histories and identities that make up our nation.  We need to learn respect for heritage, even when the histories are false or imprecise, because we are substantiated by the stories we tell, and we all need ground to stand on before we begin the practice of power.


Joy HaimsComment
Wasting Away

There is a lesser-known principle in Jewish wisdom that is quietly forgotten amidst the renewal of modern American Judaism.  In Hebrew, Bal Tashchit – do not waste.  It seems that this practice of contentedness did not jibe well with American values of self, consumption, excess, and accumulation. The principle is drawn from the Torah’s ancient laws of war:

When you lay siege to conquer a city, and the war takes many days – do not destroy the trees, wielding an ax against them. You may eat of them, but do not destroy them.  Are the trees of the field human that they could flee from siege? (Deuteronomy 20:19)

As I write, the government struggles again to pass a spending bill, a shutdown looms, and concerns more significant than money remain ignored as a result of our system.  It’s a worthwhile question to ask: If we were to judge America by it’s government’s budgeting habits – what values lay at the core?  I’m afraid that my answer to that question is profoundly disturbing.  I see a country that values greed, violence and power, and concerns itself with the wealth of a few to the detriment of many.

There is a reason Jewish wisdom identified ‘avoiding-wastefulness’ as a core practice, aside from the benefit to fruit trees in wartime.  The practice includes minutia like keeping a flame low to save gas, and not over-eating or throwing away food.  When we train ourselves to see value in every little piece of the world, we correct the innate self-centeredness that we are born with.  We re-wire our minds for appreciation and sustainability. 

How would your life change if you abided by the principle – don’t waste anything, ever?

I’m sure we’d actually get quite a few more uses from our shampoo bottles, our olive oil, and our toilet paper.  But more than that – we’d be content with less, and we’d feel even more fulfilled.  (We think more brings more happiness – it never does.)  And when we get together to work out a budget, trust me, it will look better than it does now.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zach Fredman

PS – Join me and my friend, activist, teacher, artist, architect, Sam Spetner, who will join us to celebrate Tu Beshvat, and ask with us these questions – does Judaism carry any precedent for the wisdoms of permaculture?  How do we carry these wisdoms into life in the big apple?

Joy HaimsComment
Najara Release

Dear Friends,

Last night the Epichorus celebrated the release of our 2nd album, Najara, out on Sawdust Records. It was a magnificent evening, surprising even. We didn’t think so many folks would drudge through the late winter eve to join us, and instead we sold out National Sawdust. It was wondrous to be surprised by a creation of our own making. From within the heart of the thing, we had no idea how big it had become. It blew us away. I’m thrilled to share that with all of you, friends who have been such dedicated keepers and carriers of a new musical legacy that we don’t even know what we’re weaving, yet.

The album is named for Yisrael Najara, a 15th century cabbalist, poet, vagabond melody collector. As I studied Najara’s poetry with the Syrian and Iraqi master musicians of Jerusalem, I felt something they didn’t – that Najara’s work, though clothed in pseudo-religious garb, was deeply in line with the rebellious, erotic, imaginative spirit that we carry forth in our work at The New Shul. Both song and religion are capable of honoring tradition and transgressing it, all while remaining within that magnificent space we call ceremony.

So that’s what we did to celebrate and release the record – we made ceremony, heretical and reverential at once, in the heart of Williamsburg at midnight on the first Thursday of February 2018. The album is out today across all platforms. Take a listen, and I’ll introduce you to my dear friend, the rabbi-poet of Gaza, Najara.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zach Fredman

Najara pic.jpg


Joy HaimsComment
Broken Heart Prescription

Dear Friends,

It has been a hard week for me. A dear friend has died, and after a funeral and shiva and another memorial abundant in words and donuts and sparkles (all of these her loves), broken hearts remain. More often than not I feel struck still, unable to think, days spent filling out nothingness in slow stepping time.

I don’t frequent the darkest rooms of the heart, depression, sorrow, grief. But I find myself here today, and from within, I ask the question that is always at the center of my teachings. What is the Jewish contribution to the human experience of this place? What’s the wisdom, the spiritual intuition that the tradition gives to those who find themselves where I am now?

A good dictionary offers the word yagon, grief, denoting a far heavier experience than the more common atzev, sadness. It’s used sparingly in the Torah, once to describe the experience of losing a child. Jacob makes it known that Benjamin will never leave his side. He already lost Joseph. If he were to lose another, grief would carry him down to hell.

The sage who knew this place inside out though, is Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav. Modern biographers diagnose him as manic-depressive, and many of his teachings carry beautiful images and metaphors that speak to the relationship of pain, brokenness, beauty, and healing. Here’s one. Nachman says:

A broken heart and depression are not the same thing whatsoever. A broken heart is in the heart, but depression originates in the spleen, and its source is really from a place we call the dark side. And god hates it. But a broken heart is beloved before the holy one, because of how terribly precious it is.

It would be great if a person could carry their broken heart all day, but people are prone to slip from broken-heartedness to sorrow. Instead, they should choose a certain hour of the day, and let their heart break. That is, they should enter contemplation and break their own heart, allowing God’s presence to bear witness. And the rest of the day, they can remain entirely in joy.

What a beautiful teaching on sorrow and joy, attention, balance and subtlety. That our hearts can be broken – it’s a gift of God, not a curse. And more than a punishment carried out on a powerless subject, heartbreak is a skill, and we can play at its mastery. Heartbreak is necessary for the goodness of the world – it’s a wellspring of compassion and empathy.

And we remain human. Flawed and small, fragile, wrecked swiftly, sometimes. We are only capable of so much heartbreak. But where the instinct might be to run from her entirely – we should welcome her sad beauty with open arms. Only then is her presence a blessing. I carry your heart, (I carry it in my heart).

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zach Fredman

Ps – Here is a stunning piece of writing by Adina Talve Goodman



Joy HaimsComment
What Not To Say at Shiva

The Shiva house can be an anxious place for visitors, even more than for the mourners, who sit for seven days (shiva means seven).  And the nature of the death is palpable.  When someone has died at the end of their years, the gathering might near celebration, as in the Sufi culture, where death is revered as the wedding and reunion of soul and source.  But when a soul departs swiftly, in an accident or a malfunction of the body, we feel, or project, the unspeakable pain of the mourners even from the walkway that twists to their door.  And yet, it’s a mitzvah to visit that place and be with them in the immediacy of their uncontainable feelings and find words to say.
            First, what not to say.  If you didn’t know the one who is gone, don’t make things up.  Don’t exaggerate your relationship in search of insignificant generalities, “she was always so kind,” or “she was such a good person.”  Don’t tell the mourner how to feel, “you’ll miss her so much,” or “it’s ok to be distraught.”  And don’t tell them what to do, “you have time to think about what’s next,” or “eventually you’ll get back to work.”   Our discomfort spits obscenities off our lips – be swift to intervene before half-thoughts become sounds.
            There is a phrase offered by the tradition, and in the right context, the ancient words might comfort.  Hamakom Yenachem Etchem.  May you be comforted among all the mourners of our people.  The gift of the phrase is a gentle reminder to the mourner that they reside within a community of mourners, who have been with unspeakable loss before them, who are with them now.  That image, passed from the lips is a wide bridge across their sense of isolation. 
            Also excellent is silence.  But not a silence that shouts, or a silence that asks, or a silence that pities.  A silence that is content in its quietude, one that they are familiar with like the mountain that lives in their backyard.  Like the silence of the stars.  This silence is an open arch and the mourner comes and goes through it as they please. 
            The very best is a story, a story of their beloved the mourner has never heard before.  A story of when she ran over an animal, worried that she killed someone’s cat, was not comforted to learn it was a possum, and proceeded to give it full funeral rites with burial and kaddish.  This gives them a sense that even they didn’t know all of the life their beloved lived.  And that unknown expanse is joyful.
            It can be a great gift, just to show up.  They’ll smile knowing that if you were with them through that, you’ll be with them through anything.  In that place, having their people beside them means everything. 
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Zach Fredman

PS - File this email away, and if you’re nervous to visit it a mourner, give it a quick once over.

Joy HaimsComment
Prayer For Politicians
Prayer for Politicians.jpg

Dear Friends,
I traveled to London this week for a dear friend’s wedding.  He asked me to lead the tisch, a pre-wedding custom comprised of drinks, songs and stories.  We drank a nice 18-year-old single malt I found in duty free on the way over, romped on old Chassidic niggun with a beat-up guitar, and shared stories; he reminded me that the first time we met was by a spring in the wilderness of the Judean desert and we got naked to do mikvah together.  It was supposed to last forty-five minutes, but the coach was late and it stretched on for hours.  The groom is a best friend who hasn’t quite put in the hours to be one.  We’ve only known each other a couple of years, and shared no more than ten meals together.  But sometimes that’s just how it is.
I was thrilled to return home just in time to light candles with my family for the last night of Chanukah, which fell not far from the winter solstice the darkest day of the year, the daylight hours dwindling to a few bright moments enveloped by darkness encroaching from all sides. 
I awoke at 6am in London, and watched sunrise from the airport at 7am or so.  The flight took off my 10am and I settled into some mediocre movies.  At some point I looked to my left, slightly annoyed at the woman with her window ajar, the light streaming in.  I couldn’t see Wolverine.  The flight continued for hours, as did her open window, and the light.
At some point it hit me.  Flying west we chased the sun tracking still over the clouds.  It was the darkest day of the year, and I hadn’t seen this much light in months.  Now I turned to the light, and smiled at the woman, her window half upon, the light streaming in.  I landed at 2pm in New York, and it was still light.
I’m not quite sure what to make of the confluences of that day, but I can dream.  What we see is profoundly constrained by our perspective; to anyone in the northern hemisphere the light of the winter dwindles day by day until the solstice.  But from the perspective of the sun, the light remains constant, while some planet off in the distance wobbles a little closer or further away.  Whatever it is we’re seeing now, our experience is capable of radical reconfiguration, if we can glimpse a perspective far from our own. 
And to be in service of mystery.  The darkest day of the year is capable of granting abundance of light.  One jar of oil is capable of burning for eight nights.  We can never really know the spiritual potential contained in any of the substances or people we meet in our lives.   
Happy Chanukah!  Merry Christmas!  Happy New Year!  (Next Friday I’ll be chasing the sun back from Jerusalem.  I carry your prayers with me, and I’ll write in the New Year).
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Zach Fredman

Joy HaimsComment
Blessing of Luminaries

Dear Friends,
Given the dark forces at work conniving and dealing in the governance and leadership of our country, Chanukah this year is of profound significance. The eight kindlings of the little fires, are far more than a joyous custom – every night this Chanukah is a ceremony that in small measure returns balance to the light and dark of the world.
In one rambling passage of the Talmud, the rabbis have stumbled onto the question of whether it is appropriate for someone who is blind to make the blessing of the luminaries. What a great title for a blessing! It is a blessing of gratitude over the sun and moon, that light up our day and night, allowing us to make our way through the world.
Rabbi Yossi finally answers. He says, I didn’t understand the concept until one night, I was walking in the the thick black of night and I saw a man coming my way. He was carrying a torch. But when he got close I saw that he was blind. I said to him, my son, what good is the lamp to you? He said, as long as the torch is in my hand, others see me, and they save me from pits and thorns and thistles. Rabbi Yossi understood, it is fitting even for someone who is blind, to bless the light.
There is a vulnerability to wading in the darkness, and each of us is limited by our own gifts and capacities. We are dependent on others, on our communities, to step in and help us make our way through a dark world.
But the teaching also hints at a deeper truth. That we are capable of carrying lights that we don’t even have the ability to see. We can carry actions, wisdoms, insights, truths, intuitions whose light isn’t apparent yet, because we aren’t ready to see it, for this or that reason. But others can see that light within us, and with it, they will help us make our way.
You don’t even know the lights you hold! Be a torch in the dark, that others may walk in your light.
Shabbat Shalom & Happy Chanukah!
Rabbi Zach

Joy HaimsComment