I hope everyone is abiding peacefully in an excess of thanksgiving. There is so much to be grateful for. I hope the blinders that often separate us from our gratitude are gone today, and we can get lost in the ecstatic grace of thanks.
I walked the cold street yesterday and felt for those few minutes, the rare feeling of holiday in America. Businesses and restaurants closed; for a few hours, a day or so, a cessation of the consumerism that dominates the rest of our time. We’re sold a message that stuff will fill us up, sate our incompleteness. But it never does. In fact, it’s the opposite: rest, cessation, holiday, sacred time, family, custom, tradition – all of these are the stuff that give the taste of wholeness. For these, I am grateful. Strangely, I was reminded of the feeling of Shabbat amid the quiet streets of Jerusalem. They take this kind of rest weekly; cessation of commerce, restoration of soul.
Behind the abundance, there is also the pain of the Native Americans, whose land we are giving thanks upon. There is a relationship between forgiveness and thanks. As much as human beings are capable of goodness, we have also caused tremendous suffering in our history. The annihilation of Native Americans, the enslavement of Africans, the Holocaust, the maintenance of systems of oppression – are among the greatest sins of humanity. None of us participated in those atrocities, and skin color and ancestry do not implicate the generations of the future. But those who committed such evils are dead and the world, the descendants, have yet to see forgiveness.
As sisters and brothers to all people it’s upon us to ask forgiveness for the sins of the past, even if we did not commit them. Our gratitude will grow when there is less to stand in its way.
In the coming weeks and months, The New Shul will partner with New Sanctuary Coalition, an immigrant’s rights organization, led by immigrants, based in New York City. Their work will be amplified in the coming days to welcome the caravan making its way to the border through South America. As a people whose foundational mythology and history knows well the pain of homelessness, and the grace of kindness and warm welcomes, we should feel personally called to this work. There are clinics and other volunteer opportunities weekly, and I challenge you to make a donation that matches or exceeds all your other spending this weekend. Thank you to member Sonya Posmentier for bringing us to this work.
Wishing you a Shabbat of thanks!
Rabbi Zach Fredman
There is a heavy sorrow resting in the consciousness of our community this week. We’ll evening into Shabbat with the pain of the loss, violence and hate of the attack in Pittsburgh, and in Kentucky. And on the horizon lies an election under the government of an evil tyrant who is ruining humanity in fear and hate.
It’s fitting then that we might be experiencing moments of fear. The attack in Pittsburgh is a trigger for the psyche of Jewish consciousness. The collective consciousness of the tribe has experienced so much hate and violence throughout the course of history, such that any event of anti-semitism and violence is also a reminder of the pogroms, the inquisitions, the holocaust, our people faced. A large part of the collective psyche is so traumatized by old wounds, it appreciates these modern tragedies, because they substantiate the vision for segregated societies.
In the Kabbalistic tradition, which really is a discipline of psychological map-making, Isaac is the ancestor associated with fear because of the role he plays at the Binding of Isaac. Imagine the fear of a child tied atop an altar, facing death in the face of his father. Imagine the trauma that would be sown into his life, and the life of his children. Imagine all the Jewish parents and children who were killed in acts of anti-semitism, and the trauma passed into generations.
We are living in a new age though. Our culture’s tolerance for hate and discrimination of any kind is crumbling; a renaissance of compassion is coming. The circle of concern will include every human being, and our generation will fight to tear down the structural injustices that oppress minorities of any kind.
Part of that work will include healing the traumas of the past, the sins of our ancestors, the consciousness of a humanity that has seen slavery and holocaust. How do we heal? How do we allow fear to assume its rightful, but limited place in the psyche?
In the story, Isaac went out to evening in the field before dark, and he lifted his eyes over the desert. He saw the well of a vision of life. That’s the name of Isaac’s well, a vision of life. That kind of gazing, at a horizon, into self, you can call it meditation, contemplation, prayer, or just being in nature. It heals because the peace that permeates in those states, allows the psyche to reconstitute its wholeness. Peace, wholeness, blessing. He is always in the field at evening, praying, whole-ing, waiting, for the beloved who arrives at twilight.
We are to go and find wholeness each in our own ways -- ten thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground. With an oud, with a pen, with a fishing rod, a bowling ball or a baking pin. We are to go and evening in the fields of the city, from there, we look up.
We are terribly saddened at the murderous attack in Pittsburgh over Shabbat, at the Tree of Life synagogue. Our hearts go out to those most personally connected to this tragedy. In a confounding moment in the history of the world, where visionary moral leadership is scarce to be found, we are struggling to understand what this moment means, and how it calls to us. In sorrow and bewilderment, I turn to the steadfast course of Mr. Rogers, once a resident of Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh, who gave context to the turbulent times of his day by speaking to children with depth and honesty. This is how we can speak to our children.
The first response to tragedy, is the silent heart of grief, it must precede the what-it-means question. Words will struggle to hold all of the fear and anger and sadness that arise from witnessing violence. But silence and listening are a great container. Everyone should stay in that place as long as they need to.
Next, is to take a posture of prayer. The hour of souls making the journey from the bodies that contained them, back to their source, is a time for prayer. And that is true even when we die naturally. But when death comes by violence, all the more so, we must assume a posture of prayer. What does that mean? We allow our beings to vibrate with the intention for wholeness and the repair of the world. We are yearning for repair in all of the ways that it will be made, by healing souls, minds, and hearts that are suffering, and by creating a world whose hidden structures are just, and respectful of the dignity owed to every living thing. By assuming a posture of prayer, we honor the souls traversing worlds, we respond fully to a call we never hope to hear, and we recommit to the work of healing.
We begin to speak about the nature of hate and fear. Human beings are fantastic, complex, fragile creatures, and we are made by twos -- for every beautiful quality we are capable of, we are capable of its opposite in equal measure. Hate is a fallacy of the mind, that all of us know in some measure. But when hate is nurtured by lack of love and community, and by leadership that promotes division, it can reach horrific ends. The hatred of Jewish people is called anti-semitism, and it is not different in any way from hatred inflicted upon any group, on account of race, religion, or any other created means for distinguishing human beings from one another.
The Jewish people has a long history of facing hatred. But we are living at a moment in which hatred and violence are no longer the norm. The Jewish community in America has benefited greatly from integrating with the white majority that keeps a firm hold on power and privilege. Caught between the privilege we now occupy and our history of oppression, we are particularly suited to be a mighty force for racial, economic and other forms of systemic justice. The kind actions of the Islamic community are testament to the bridge work we are capable of, now and always. We need to be more cognizant of our unique situation, and work more diligently to fight hatred in all forms.
How do we heal the fear passed down to us through generational trauma? The good work of the Jewish people, in America and in Israel, necessitates an astute appreciation for this question. In the kabbalistic map of consciousness and cosmos, fear is one of the ten centers of being. Studying last week, I came upon a teaching from Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, who reminds us that fear is simply another guise, a costumed version if you will, of love. Fear is love in disguise. Some forms of fear then are totally appropriate -- as long as we are building the world we envision from a place of love, then all will be well. But when we forget that fear is love, and we let a force of narrowness and segregation act as compass to our work, we will create a world only as wide as our intention.
And so we’ll teach the children of this community that love knows no bounds -- it does not have eyes to see the color of skin, nor ears to hear the language in which you pray. The force of loved is moved by human beings in their simplicity, by acts of care and kindness that transcend the differences that others use to divide the world, and substantiate their power. We’re teaching them to give fully and freely -- to ask the names of all the strangers in their midst. They will be a mighty stream, fearless in love, swimming in Jewish wisdom, working for justice for all.
Rabbi Zach Fredman
We hold in our hearts as well, the families of Maurice Stallard and Vickie Jones, two African Americans killed this week by another racist white man full of hate, who was also ready to enter a house of worship and kill. In circles of compassion, we are extending our love to contain every human being on earth.
Please join me on Thursday evening in Washington Square Park for an event hosted by the New Sanctuary Coalition. I’ll be at the fountain at 5pm. We’ll also hold Shabbat services this Friday evening, at 630pm at First Presbyterian Church (12 w 12th st.)
As the story of Genesis turns from the mythologies of creation and the flood, into the origin myth of our ancestors, the first two words encapsulate the essence of the entire spiritual project, that each one of us is living, whether we want to be or not. God says to Abraham and Sarah, “Go, go! And leave behind your homeland, your birthplace and the home of your family. Go to the place I will show you.”
In the playspace of Jewish interpretation, those first words, “Go go!” come to mean “go unto yourself” “into yourself” - just as you make your life’s pilgrimage out in the world, don’t forget the journey within, navigating the cataclysms of your inner life, which is just as significant an adventure.
The comments in the Zohar, the great work of Jewish mysticism, are profound here. They ask, what does this verse mean? And they answer, this is a pilgrimage of self repair. And how do we make said pilgrimage? By leaving behind the stories we tell ourselves, of where we think we came from, and our self-righteous suffering, and where we think we are going. The mystics were profoundly forward thinking, intuiting the capacity of the mind to tell itself stories and create its own realities, hundreds of years before Freud’s psychological revolution.
What stories do you continue to tell yourself, even when they no longer serve you? (Discuss this with a friend over Shabbat!) I myself, am headed to a session this very moment to unravel some of those stories.
My story is about feeling unsupported. I’m so often in the role of supporting others, sometimes I have a hard time feeling the care of others, and I have a hard time asking for support. But I know the story is unreal, and it’s holding me back. Often, I’m astounded by the beauty of this community, the way in which friends are present to me and to each other, giving of themselves unconditionally. And when we’re in the fluidity of supporting each other, our potential is greatly magnified. I’m ready to let go of this story.
To change an inner story takes tremendous mental clarity, and emotional steadiness. First, be mindful of the story when you hear it rising in your ear. Don’t let it flood you. That deluge will take you to a place you are all too familiar with. We’re after a place “I will show you.”
That’s the secret, you have to be willing to let go of the old narrative before you’ve even set foot in new earth. It will feel like a tiny opening, a vision like the eye of a needle. Let that opening be a doorway to the unexplored depth of your mind and heart. Let its light, no matter how faint, be a call to continue making your way. Go to yourself, the one I’ll show you. Go, go.
Rabbi Zach Fredman
The United Nations’ scientific panel on climate change published a devastating report this week; read it above. We are strange creatures, human beings, thoroughly capable of magnificent acts of selflessness, devoting our energies to helping and saving the lives of fellow human beings we know nothing about; Chiune Sugihara, for example, saved thousands of Jews in the Holocaust, with the stroke of a pen. Just the same, we are capable of destruction and oppression, by way of silence, complacence, and acts that seem harmless.
My daughter is three years old. The children in our school are six, seven, eight, twelve. Our teenagers; our young teachers. We read the climate report together, and asked how old we’d all be in 2040. The actions that are collectively catapulting our planet toward real apocalypse, have at their core a choice that puts the selfish present before selflessness in service of the generations of the future? We need to ask -- What is the wisdom that can repair our culture of using, enjoying, and protecting the Earth’s resources? And how can we promote a culture of sustainability?
The gem of Jewish ecological wisdom compares human beings to the trees of a field. There is a commandment in Deuteronomy, that in times of war, one cannot destroy the fruit trees that surround a besieged city, for trees are not people that they might flee destruction, and the resources of the planet we were born to, are never to be wasted. The commandment then is, do not waste a thing, ever.
All of the suggested means for healing the planet fall underneath this category: take public transit whenever possible, car-share, drive an electric of hybrid vehicle, fly less, use energy efficient bulbs, un-plug computers and TVs when not in use, eat less or no meat, don’t waste food, use renewable energy, weatherize your home, save water. The list goes on. The reason that not wasting is the most important principle is because we’ve become terribly unconscious about how we use the Earth’s resources. Try this week to keep a mindfulness about any waste you see in your midst, created by your action, and try to minimize it. Then go and teach these ways to others.
For the first three years of a tree’s life one is not supposed to pluck its fruit. In like manner, it is customary for some to refrain from cutting a child’s hair until she is three years old. We are trees of the field, only we have legs for mobility and the wisdom that can accompany a brain, but these evolutionary gifts carry the responsibility that we act as stewards of the Earth. If we are merely here to use and abuse what has been offered to us gratuitously, what a sad story we are. But we need not resign to apocalyptic visions, even those written by scientists. We are capable of wonder, ingenuity, magic, and repair. So go plant a tree -- in the mind of mystics, every tree is the Tree of Life.
Rabbi Zach Fredman
Every moment has cosmic potential. The most tired mundane tasks, boxing a home and moving, for example, may contain the seeds of something magnificent yet to come. As the Dead put it, “Once in a while you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right.” What matters is the willingness to see, listen, feel, to be open always, and lean into intuition. Let accidents, coincidences, kismets lead. It happened to me this week.
At the end of a stressful summer, finally, we were taping the last boxes of our home, along with the help of a moving company Zivar had found through a listserv. Zivar has many gifts, among those relevant to this tale, she is excited by and asks after the stories of others, and people tell her everything! I went downstairs to put a box in the truck, and the next thing I know, Zivar has learned that M’s wife is pregnant and due in a month or so, and they could use a rabbi for a brit.
The move was a breeze. Between boxes, sweat, tape and stairs, M also mentioned that his wife wanted to convert, but they’d had less than pleasant experiences with some other rabbis, and weren’t gonna push for it before the birth. That’s when I leaned.
A and I spoke a few days later, and I encouraged her to join us for Yom Kippur. She did, and we met the following week to talk conversion. A told me her whole story -- from eco-trade shows to deserted bunker jam sessions in Puerto Rico, love lost and found, unexpected miracles. I told her I thought “conversion” wasn’t really a great word for it. She said, we’ve been calling it a “re-birth.” I said, “That’s it!” I asked her why. She said that her mom had explained religions like spokes on a wheel, but none of them had ever felt right to her, until now. And that in this moment, before creating a family with her partner, she can feel the power of giving her child a story, a community, a tradition to belong to.
(Pause -- As we move into The New Shul’s 20th season, a time of expansion and commitment to the uniqueness of our approach, I am actively considering the areas in which The New Shul can contribute to the evolution of Judaism. I think “re-birth” is one such field. Precisely at the fringes of the Jewish community, the places where others are most anxious, and rabbis “disappear” at someone else’s most significant hour -- this is where we can live and teach. We’ll begin sharing the principles and long-standing precedents for our method, that others may learn and grow.)
Yesterday we met at the mikvah -- A, M and his parents. We speak about the Hebrew name her father had given her at birth, and the minor addition we will make to it. She is under a white tallit, clear face round belly. I read her a poem on water, identities, essence. Tears ready her for water. From behind the door we listen to the sounds of water, immersion, the meaning of splash splash splash.
Outside in the rain she glows alongside her beloved, her face radiant clear like a child’s. Reborn, a mother ready for birth. We celebrated the occasion with Billy Crystal at Katz’s. I had a matzo ball soup. She had one too, and a half reuben on rye.
Rabbi Zach Fredman
I had taken a spiritual hiatus from the media trail. Sometime over the summer I confessed to a friend that I checked CNN daily, and her face shocked me out of the reality I had acquiesced to, and I welcomed media celibacy. But as the holidays recede, within these days of integration, I watched the senate hearing intently, with an ear tuned in to the way everyone in the room listened. A few moments caught my attention:
Firstly, there were staggering differences between the listening styles of the men and women in that room. Dr. Ford, Senator Feinstein, and Rachel Mitchell, spoke and listened with a gentleness that was in stark contrast to Judge Kavanaugh, and the male senators who spoke in the later hours of the hearing. We are one of the first generations in history to overturn gender-roles that have existed since the days of hunter-gatherers. Think of how different the listening demanded of hunters, is from that of home-makers -- hunters listened for prey, for the kill, homemakers listened to children, to elders, to the concerns of community. Women and men have been trained to listen differently for generations; it’s been written into the fabric of our beings. In these days of fervent reassessment of justice, respect and equality for women, not only will women be given greater pedestals to speak from, it will be demanded of men that they learn how to listen anew.
When asked what she remembers most, Dr. Ford answered, “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter, the laugh — the uproarious laughter between the two.” How miraculous and monstrous, are the capacities of mind and memory, that a sound imprinted on the aural faculty countless years ago can linger eternally, a defiant trigger for trauma that is so difficult to heal, all the more so, in a culture that makes little room for healing.
In the final moments of a lengthy hearing, Senator Kamala Harris concluded the day with a simple question to Judge Kavanaugh, “Did you listen to Dr. Ford’s testimony?” “No,” he said, “I was going to, but I was preparing for my own.” We’re measuring our listening this year, against the demands of the 2nd century sage Hillel, who when debating in court, would argue in favor of his opponent, before arguing his own case. How could Kavanaugh deny what he hadn’t even been willing to listen to? Did he not consider that something she would say might jog his memory? What a terrible model of listening to present to the nation, as he prepares for high office.
Whether or not you believe Ford or Kavanaugh, an essential notion was absent from yesterday’s discussion. Sensitive subjects are most often avoided, because we’re so afraid of the vulnerability they necessitate. But that vulnerability is the site of real listening. No one asked for testimony on the nature of healing.
Do we not believe a person is capable of healing, of change, of repentance and growth? Should the wrongs he may have committed as a teenager prevent his nomination? If we are a community that believes in the possibility of healing then we must say “No.” If Judge Kavanaugh was willing to step forward, to speak and listen from a place of vulnerability and own up to the mistakes of youth, even just a little bit, it would go a long way toward healing the pain of his past sins, in himself and in others, be they large or small, and whether they include Dr. Ford or not. Vulnerability and listening are preconditions of healing. But that was not his choice, he chose denial and anger.
What does our society demand of those who sit on the supreme court? We want righteousness. And that doesn’t mean purity, perfection, unadulterated goodness. Righteousness is a measure of listening to all as equals -- men and women, Democrats, Republicans and Independents, blacks and whites, Jews, Buddhist, Muslims and Christians. Can you listen to every voice and hear within the shared humanity that far outweighs difference? Can you bring compassion, no matter what they bring?
Rabbi Zach Fredman