Thursday, September 29, 2011

5772

I am getting better at navigating Jewish holidays.  I didn't have even one meltdown today as I got dressed for services.  Not one tear was shed when I maneuvered through my closet of Target clearance buys and countless pairs of cords to unearth something suitable.  Even though the usher refused to say hello, shrugged at my prayer book request, and sent me to the cheap seats, I think I totally belonged.  Except for the Hebrew thing.  And well really knowing what was happening throughout the 3 hour service.  And still being stunned it was a 3 hour service.

Dave was asked to give the sermon today to kick off 5772. It was nothing short of amazing.  I sobbed through most of it, in awe at the way he knit words, images, and actions together.  It was a masterpiece.  

Seven minutes in, I had to sneak a photo.  I know, not Kosher.






I was (mostly) discrete.  I just needed some documentation of the moment.  And really, this photo pales in the face of Dave's words.

Soul Justice and The Faith of Isaac

I sat cross-legged, self-conscious and stiff, but enough at peace to slow my racing thoughts and enjoy my first meditation class as a young adult in Baltimore. The rain clattered against the roof and the wooden floors creaked against my settling and resettling hips and ankles. As I held my hereditary anxiety at bay for the duration of the class, I noticed that both my inner and outer worlds had grown quiet. I walked out of class and discovered the rain had frozen into the season’s first snow. The muddy light of streetlights, automobile headlamps, and neon storefront signs reflected off the snow and was lifted to fresh heights, and the sounds of the city were absorbed into the snow’s silent crystalline surfaces. A minor rebirth of self, within a minor rebirth of a city; this is my first offering to you, my Shir Tikvah family, on Rosh Hashanah.

I wish I could say I stuck with it, and developed my own meditative practice; but I didn’t. Then I joined the morning Minyan here at Shir Tikvah, and loved it deeply; but I let my busy-ness grow like weeds into that Thursday morning space where I’d prayed with a small, dear group of chaverim.

If I think about my most meaningful experiences in prayer, in meditation, or in spiritual practice, the common denominator is a sense of welcoming; a bone-deep feeling of being welcomed and celebrated and accepted and enfolded…; and a rising song of an answer in myself that celebrates the world and rededicates myself to its people. I notice my breathing; I notice the wind stirring tree branches. This happens a few times each year, if I’m lucky. Such a feeling may visit some of us in shul today, but for many of us, still shaking off the distractions and anxieties of our secular lives, it may not.

I’m afraid that many of us, myself included, spend a lot of time in the clutches of what some in the Buddhist tradition call the trance of unworthiness, which means we are telling ourselves, mostly below conscious awareness, that you don’t belong here, that you’re a fake, you don’t really know what you’re doing, you’ve earned only the misfortunes that have befallen you, while anything good in your life is the result of some cosmic or bureaucratic misunderstanding, and you better keep faking it so that “they” don’t figure you out and exile you from your home, your community, your school, your workplace, your shul. The writer Anne LaMott called it her very own subliminal radio station playing in her head.

I wonder if Isaac, the son of Abraham, felt any of the tension between these feelings of unworthiness and feelings of welcome, as he lay bound upon his father’s altar. We hear a lot about the test of Abraham’s faith, but what about the faith of Isaac? Was Isaac’s faith shaken as the bonds cut against his skin and his father readied his sacrificial blade? Was he calm as he readied himself to die? Or did he blame himself for the suffering he was about to endure, to make sense of the inexplicable fate that hurtled towards him? This figure of Isaac becomes achingly familiar across the millennia. Especially as children, but even as adults, we accept our suffering, and we twist our lives like vines slowly around the question, what must I have done to deserve this fate? She’ll find her away out of that bottle, she didn’t mean it when she hit me; he’s just a tough love boss, and how could I have made such a clumsy mistake anyway? Like vines slowly covering the contours of an altar, we endure domestic violence, poverty-wage jobs, school bullying, predatory lending and foreclosure, we twist our living, our thinking, our being into harmony with violence, and project the figure of Abraham onto our oppressor. 

(Kristy here.  It was at this point that all of the tension that I sometimes have about raising our kids Jewish evaporated.  I mean, who wouldn't want their kids to be like this man that I get to be married to forever?)

None of us needs to perish upon these altars. This is the prophetic wisdom of Judaism that I believe in—that we are welcome in the radical abundance of God’s universe, and we are commanded to knit justice and radical openness to the stranger, the widow, the orphan, into the societies we create, and even, as Jeremiah reminds us, into the strange cities into which we are cast by chance or flight. And if we find we have to blind ourselves to this commandment in order to get through a single day in this society, may the Shofar blast illuminate a different path, even for a moment, like a lightning bolt in the depths of night.

At the intersection of prayer and power, of spirituality and the struggle for justice, I offer the question: who among us remembers we are welcome, and who twists upon the altar? Who has bound herself in the unforgiving coils of a self turned against itself, in exile from itself, and who is bound by injustice, prone on the altar of poverty and powerlessness? Who chokes on the false faith of Isaac? And when will we free ourselves from the altars of sacrifice that bind us; when will we unmask the false Abrahams that menace us, to refashion the world so all of us can revel in the same message of radical welcoming and celebration, that says, to all of us:

You can dwell here.
You can thrive here.
You can love and be loved here.
You can be different, or think different, or believe different, or love different, or look different, and you will still be recognized and welcomed here.
You can labor here, and you will reap an abundant reward, and so will your children.
Your children will be nurtured here, will be called to contribute their best, and will know that they belong here.
You can thrive here.
You are welcome here.

This is the message that I would place like a signpost to all travelers at the intersection of the path of prayer or spiritual practice, and the path of justice, of tzedek.

Now come with me, 1100 miles to the east, and around a decade into the past, into the blazing Baltimore heat that baked the blacktop soft against the slapping soles of my dress shoes, hurtling through rush hour traffic towards the inner harbor, towards the Convention Center, towards Phyllis, a veteran banquet server and shop steward, who was standing down her general manager, forbidden Union buttons clenched in her fist. I had been driving south on St Paul avenue a moment earlier with two fellow organizers, Leon and Alyson, before Phyllis called me from her cell phone, whispered a few frantic hushed words, they’re going to take me away right now, I started giving out the buttons and they caught me right away, get down here now! We were stuck in rush hour traffic, inching along towards the great convention center where convention guests were preparing for some tasty appetizers and where the GM was preparing to escort Phyllis off the premises… so I jumped out of the car, leaving Leon and Alyson with the keys, and our picket-signs stuffed in my trunk, and I ran down the street to give Phyllis some back-up.

Now Phyllis lived with her family in a pretty tough, run-down apartment complex in West Baltimore, but she looked sharp in her tuxedo attire, and in my opinion, the crowning touch was the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees, HERE Local 7 button, a classy grey with navy letters, on her lapel. Convention Center management differed in their opinion, and threatened to fire any of the 120 or so workers who dared to wear a union button as our contract negotiations heated up that summer. So we planned to all ‘button up’ just before a big convention meal was to be served, and in case they tried to punish any of the workers wearing buttons, we prepared the whole group of workers to walk off work for an “unfair labor practices strike”—which meant they would have some extra legal protections from company retaliation.

So… I dashed past the security guards who, I would later learn had a mug shot of me and orders to kick me out if they saw me without a management escort, and I raced upstairs to join the confrontation between the HR director, the general manager, Phyllis, and a gathering throng of workers and befuddled convention goers. Ultimately, a little bit of justice was served that day. Phyllis and I stood our ground and so did the other workers, and they got to wear their union buttons without retaliation. They ended up getting a great contract with health insurance coverage and wage increases. That, and I’ll leave you with the image of Kenny, an older gentleman who worked in the back of the house, unfailingly courteous but too cautious to get caught up in union trouble, even to wear a button; Kenny, who came hesitantly out with the other workers to support Phyllis that day, silently; Kenny, who finally approached me on that day of raised voices and confrontation, and silently invited me to put a local 7 button into his open, deeply calloused hand. Something both concrete and inchoate, something objective, quantifiable, and something that cannot be safely entrusted to language, all of it clumsily filed under the word Justice, happened that day, and that summer, in the stifling heat of Baltimore.
 

Sometimes the angel of G-d tells Abraham, “do not lift your hand against your son, free him and be welcome on this earth”, and sometimes maybe G-d speaks to a woman named Phyllis, and tells her to overcome the false faith of Isaac in her oppressor, so she can rise up and call on her co-workers to wear a union button, risking their jobs to hold the line for economic justice, to free their families and the generation of their children and grandchildren from the altar of poverty and powerlessness, from a society that tells them that they don’t belong here, they have no right to dwell here, no right to thrive, to accumulate knowledge, a home, or other wealth to pass along to their children…

I challenge each of you, I call upon you, I implore you to hear within the raucous sounds of struggles like this one, and many others that go unreported today, the profound labor of rebuilding an economy—it cannot be built without you, and you cannot join in building it until you yourself are released from your own altar, until you dispel the sham Abraham that menaces you in a thousand forms. When it seems too hard, think of your children, and your children’s children, emerging from an economy of cruelty into a new world, like a world freshly adorned by the season’s first snow, a new economy that resonates not with a message of judgment, but instead with a message of welcome:

You can dwell here.
You can thrive here.
You can love and be loved here.
You can be different, or think different, or believe different, or love different, or look different, and you will still be recognized and welcomed here.
You can labor here, and you will reap an abundant reward, and so will your children.
Your children will be nurtured here, will be called to contribute their best, and will know they belong here.
You can thrive here.
You are welcome here.

(Me again.  I did resist the urge to stand up and cheer.  Or to raise a sign like Norma Rae...something like, "That's My Husband!" or "Revolution Now."  But, it did dawn on me that Dave might need to become a rabbi.  And that I might really be okay with that.)












2 comments:

Anonymous said...

That's some good stuff going on there, my dear. Love to hear it. And a powerful sermon. Rabbi did cross my mind when I read this on face book. Wow!!!! It would definitely be a net benefit for the world if Dave could share this kind of message on a regular basis. He seems to have a gift.
Lynn H.

Kari said...

I don't think Dave has to become a Rabbi in order to continue sharing his amazing gifts, in this case, in the written/spoken word. However, if he goes that route, I'd just like to state for the record that my family and I will be glad to visit you and yours in Israel.