When Korach and his followers are swallowed up by the earth in this week’s Torah portion, I am always reminded of Bret Harte’s quip about Oakland’s relative quiet during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake: “There are some things the earth cannot swallow.”
It really isn’t a funny line, if you’re an Oaklander, especially if you remember Mother Earth shaking us all in her teeth during the 1989 earthquake. Or, I guess, if you’re Korach.
I am traveling and at the wedding of dear friends. Posts may be sparse and brief for a bit.
A little over a month ago, I wrote about shaving my head at the “36 Rabbis Shave for the Brave” event in Chicago. A group of rabbis, mostly but not all Reform, shaved our heads in an effort to raise consciousness and cash for pediatric cancer research. Our inspiration was the life of a little boy who did not survive leukemia, the eight year old child of our colleagues, Sammy Sommer.
The experience has given me one surprise after another.
It turned out that it wasn’t much of a sacrifice to shave my head: I actually felt freed by it, and after fulfilling a promise to a friend this summer, I intend to get rid of the hair again. I liked the bald look: elegant in its own way, and striking.
In the meantime, I’m walking around with what looks like a bad crew cut as the hair grows out. My hair is about half an inch long. If I put on a hat, my scalp itches. Every day, I’ve gotten a little more upset when I looked in the mirror, and today I finally figured it out.
I had gone out today without makeup or earrings. While I was pumping gas, I caught sight of a reflection in the car window. The image looked to me like a middle aged man with a bad crew cut. “Who IS that guy?” I thought, annoyed.
Then I realized: That guy is me.
My next thought was: Never, ever leave the house again without lipstick.
I am quite aware that just as shaving my head was nothing like having cancer, this tiny bit of gender discomfort is nothing like the reality facing transgender people. On the other hand, it does seem that there may yet be more to learn from this experience, especially since now I know why the clerk at Staples seemed to be looking at me funny, and hesitated in speaking to me.
So – if you would like to join me in supporting childhood cancer research, you can still donate here. Truly, it’s a good cause.
And if I learn anything worth passing along about being mistaken for a middle aged guy with a bad crew cut, I promise to print it here!
It’s very late, but I want to write this before I forget anything.
The mood tonight before the #36Rabbis Shave for the Brave event was giddy. We milled around in the common area in the B2 level of the Fairmont Hotel, waiting for a program to end. The noise level was high; the group was noisy and discombobulated. Rabbi Julie Adler and I talked about how strange it seemed that we were in such a manic mood, when the heartbreaking story of Superman Sam had given birth to the whole project. We were gathering in our grief and our rage that children suffer with these terrible diseases. Pediatric cancer destroys young lives and it is brutal for the families who suffer it, even when the patient survives. We had come to raise funds for research to find a better way via the St. Baldrick’s Foundation.
My own mood was unstable – on the one hand, I’ve been working towards this event for months. Every time I think about Phyllis Sommer, and imagine losing my own child, I begin to cry. Every time I remember the children in the Bone Marrow Unit at City of Hope, I feel great sadness. Those feelings warred with my personal feelings of vanity: I was about to go bald! My hair is a major source of vanity for me, especially since it has stayed thick and dark as I’ve aged, and letting go of it was a big deal. I was acutely aware that it was too late to back out. I was glad my brother and his wife were there; I leaned on their presence.
The mood in the room was giddy. That seemed inappropriate until I asked the question: what IS the appropriate response to an obscene event, the death of a young child? We do not have the wherewithal to digest such a thing. It is, literally, unthinkable. Then it didn’t seem so strange that the children ran around in circles and adults took nervous photos of one another. We had no way to respond, so we circled in nervous energy.
Finally it was time, and we filed into the auditorium for a brief evening service. Rabbi Rex Perlmutter led a service of quiet and calm, centering us for the task ahead, reminding us why we were there with a memorial of all those we’ve lost of late, including Sammy Sommer. The giddy mania stopped, and a quiet expectation filled the room. We “shavees” were called up onto the stage for a br
ief final song, then lined up for the shave.
I was the last rabbi shaved. I watched my colleagues go before me, and I saw that for some, especially women, it was difficult. I cried a little bit watching them. But when my own time came, I sat in the chair and the barber checked with me briefly, “You OK?” I said, “Well, I figure that this is one time I will get exactly the cut I wanted.” He laughed, and began to cut.
The cold air hit my scalp in patches. I had worried that I might cry, but it was such a peculiar sensation that I didn’t feel like crying. My head grew colder, and I felt a breeze. I felt a weight falling away from me. Then some hair dropped across my face, and I scrunched my face against it. I could hear my brother teasing me about the faces I was making, so I made more faces.
It was a moment of intense life. A moment of loss, and a moment of freedom. It was a moment of extreme closeness with colleagues, some of whom I had only recently met. It was a moment of rabbis coming together to mourn and to insist upon making the world better, and I feel blessed to be part of such a group. All the nerves were gone; what remained was a holy peace, shalom.
Now I sit here with my cold head and my heavy eyelids, trying to process it all. The fundraising continues: I am not yet at my goal. But whatever happens, I know that I have been present for something I will never forget.
This was going to be the Year of the Garden. When I moved into the new house, I had great plans for a garden of California native plants, plus vegetables and fruits and a few old favorites. So I paid some nice folks to dig everything up, enrich the tired soil with compost, and cover the lot with some wood chips that will gradually decompose into the earth. By the time it was all done, it was clear that we are in the midst of a terrible drought in California, and it is simply not responsible for me to go planting a bunch of tender new stuff that needs gallons of water.
So the California natives and the iris and the day lilies will have to wait for next year. I’m getting ready to plant a little vegetable garden in barrels (easier to protect from wildlife and small peeing dogs) and I’ve got my two new baby figs. They are leafing out nicely, the little leaves looking like tiny hands that uncurl and reach for the sun. I’m glad I ordered the fig trees before I knew about the drought. Soon I’ll have the cukes and ‘maters and okra going, too. I’ll water them by drip and they’ll feed me and my family and maybe a few others as well.
I feel embarrassed to whine much about my little garden, when so many California farmers are trying to figure out how to survive this terrible drought. Water is expensive for them even in good years, and this year it sounds like no amount of money will buy the water they need, because the Sierra has little snow. When I served a congregation in the Central Valley, some of my congregants were small orange farmers. Their families had grown citrus for generations, and it was a beautiful thing to see the labor of the farmers and the natural wisdom of the trees come together to make a harvest of glowing fruit. Now they and others like them in the Valley are having to do a dreadful calculus: how many trees can they afford to irrigate? How many trees will be lost?
Over the months ahead, food will be more expensive for everyone in America, because the farmers of the Central Valley don’t have water. One third of all the produce grown in the United States comes from the Valley, and this year is a drought year. That means that more people in America will eat less, and that much of what they are able to eat will be lower in quality, because fresh fruits and vegetables and meat will see the worst price increases. Drought means that there will be less work in the Valley, where poverty already runs rampant among the farmworkers, the people we all depend upon for our food.
Living a Jewish life pushes me to pay attention to these connections. The movement of the sun across the sky determines times for prayer. The sun sets at a different time every day, but its setting marks the beginning of a new day. From Sukkot to Passover, we pray for rain three times a day; soon we’ll change that prayer to a prayer for dew, which is the most an Israeli or California farmer can hope for between Passover and the High Holy Days. We Jews are tied to the natural world by our prayer cycle and our calendar; no matter how urban our lives, the connection is inescapable.
And that is a good thing, because we – not just Jews, all of us! – need to remember that our lives and well being are linked with the lives of others. When I say motzi before eating a meal, I remind myself that bread doesn’t grow in the grocery store, or in a bread machine. It comes from the earth, it comes from all the creatures that fertilize the plants that went into it, it comes from the people who harvested the plants, it comes from the people who transported it and who worked in the factories that processed and packaged it. It comes from the people who stock the shelves, it comes from the checker who rang it up, it comes from a million parts of creation. Every bite of bread is holy.
So folks, it’s time to pray for the Valley. Time to pray for the people who live there, the people who work there, the bees that pollinate plants, for the earth itself. It’s time to pray that the politicians can find a compromise (that is what they do, when they’re doing their jobs) that will make it possible for find water to route to the thirsty plants before all the fields fall idle. It’s time to pray not just with our mouths, but with our hearts and hands and email and telephones, to insist that ways be found for vulnerable farmers to survive a bad year. It’s time to give money, or volunteer at the Food Bank, because the 49 million Americans who were hungry last year are going to be hungrier this year, because food prices will go up and up and up.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously spoke of “praying with his feet” when he marched at Selma. We are the hands and the feet of God in the world. God is not sitting idle, waiting for the right words to be spoken that will cause magical rain to fall from the heavens. God waits dormant within us, waiting for us to get off our collective tuchus and act.
This is a season of drought. It’s time to take care of one another.
“Baruch Dayan emet” is what Jews say when anyone dies. It means, “Blessed is the True Judge.” It’s appropriate for anyone, saint or sinner or mystery.
Watching twitter today, I saw many responses to Mr. Phelps’ death. Some were thoughtful, some were angry, some were clever, but this was one of those times when I’m glad to be an observant Jew. “Baruch Dayan emet,” I said, grateful for the tradition.
I have no idea what drove Mr. Phelps and his followers to picket funerals and spew hate. He hated a lot of people, including LGBT people, Jews, and a long list of others.
Death is often called “the great equalizer.” Rich or poor, famous or obscure, we all die, and our bodies turn to dust. Fred Phelps is no different in that respect: his body will turn to dust.
But what is not equal after death is the memory we leave behind us. Jews are apt to say in comforting a mourner: “May the departed’s memory be for a blessing.” That one won’t be used much for Mr. Phelps, if it is used at all. I don’t know what he was to his family, but he made his life into a curse for many LGBT Americans, and for the people mourning at funerals his church picketed. He has left behind an entire generation of people to whom the name “Fred Phelps” will mean cruelty, hurt and disrespect for the dead.
Each of us has some choice over the memories we leave behind us. Choose wisely.
Rabbi Simcha Bunam Bonhart of Przysucha (1765–1827) used to say, “Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he or she can reach into the one or the other, depending on the need. When feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or disconsolate, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words: “For my sake was the world created.” But when feeling high and mighty one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words: “I am but dust and ashes.” – from Tales of the Hasidim, by Martin Buber.
I’m not sure which pocket I should reach into or which note I should read. For the last week, this blog has seen its readership increase nine-fold from about 200 “hits” per day to 1800. I’m not sure how this happened but it’s certainly very gratifying. Thank you for reading my work.
The ridiculous part is that it is also rather alarming. When I thought only a few people were reading, it was easy to write. Now that I have what I hoped for, the words don’t flow so easily. I click “delete” more often than I click “publish.” Tonight I decided that maybe the best way to get over it was to simply admit what was going on, have a laugh at my self-importance or shyness or whatever it is, and get back to writing.
Today I was scheduled for jury duty. I kept the day clear, called last night to see if they wanted me at 9 a.m., and then phoned again at 11 a.m. to see if they wanted me at 1 p.m. They didn’t want me. I’m done for the next year.
This year jury duty was no big deal. Some years I go in for one cattle call, and then they release me. A couple of years ago, I went in for my cattle call, and then back again and again as the jury was selected, until I was Juror #8. That year it was a two week job.
That time, I got to see the whole process, including the process of people trying to get released from duty. The judge was tough but fair: single proprietors of small businesses and single caretakers of small children went home almost immediately, serving almost no time. People with long-planned nonrefundable vacations were released, too. A couple of folks who did not have the ability to follow the arguments were gently sent home. People who merely couldn’t be bothered were held to serve, at least one of them on the jury itself. He quit whining about it about the third day, as I recall.
We worked hard. Even the whiny guy who didn’t want to be there worked hard, by the time we got to deliberations. During the days of testimony and waiting, we worked hard at following the rules: no chatting about it, no opinions, just take it all in. We understood that years of a man’s life depended on our behavior and decisions. We saw that witnesses had been unwilling, and we saw the damage to the victim. We heard conflicting testimony. We knew, too, that there were many things we were not allowed to see or hear, and we had to accept that. We knew that the crime in question was too common for the newspapers, but that it represented a small piece of a big problem in our community. We intuited other crimes that the defendant may have committed, but those were not the matter at hand.
After the testifying was done, I served as foreperson of the jury as we processed information and slowly re-covered what we had seen and heard. I took vote after vote, stopping to discuss and process some more after each vote, getting us closer to a verdict. As I said, we all worked hard.
At the end of it, we convicted a man of a felony. At the end of it, I felt that I’d done my very best, that we’d done our very best, and I hope justice was done. At the end of it, I had learned that nothing on television even approximates reality, especially reality shows.
I would just as soon not serve on a jury again. The thing is, every defendant is some mother’s child, a human being who needs a fair trial whatever he or she deserves at the end of that trial. It is an imperfect system, but as the judge said to us at the end of it, it’s better than any other system human beings have devised.
As a Jew, I’m proud of the many contributions of Jewish civilization to the processes of law. As a rabbi, I am conscious of the requirement of Jewish law and tradition that I obey the law and serve: dina d’malchuta dina, “the law of the land is the law.” I did jury duty today serving my responsibilities as an American and as a Jew.