A Map through the Wilderness

Image: Old map and compass. Image by Ylanite Koppens from Pixabay)

I’m feeling pretty wild around the edges lately, and I gather from social media that I’m not the only one. I’ve been on Covid Confinement since March 10, and here it is September 24th! My world got a little bigger in June, when we merged bubbles with our son and daughter-in-law so that we could help with childcare after maternity leave ran out. Hugging the baby every morning is one of the best parts of my day, along with limping out to the car to go home every afternoon.

Diapers and teething have been a big help to stay grounded. It’s funny, the same stuff that made me wild as a young mother (repetitive icky tasks) are now the things keeping me sane.

I’m also still teaching online, and will have news about a new class for you soon, once the powers that be at Hamaqom have figured out details like pricing.

AND here we are, in the middle of the Days of Awe, approaching Yom Kippur, during the unholiest time in my memory. We are living through some ugly stuff: pandemic, government corruption on what used to be an unimaginable scale, a bitter election, unrest around the world, and an attempt in our country to come to terms with our history of institutionalized racism. Antisemitism is on the rise, and white supremacy is putting up a fight. That is too much stuff to deal with all at once, but it seems we have no choice but to deal.

Where to find God in all of this? I have no idea where God is right now; I’m flying blind. However, I do know how to find holiness: I have a map, called the Torah, and I have instructions for interpreting it: Jewish tradition and my own conscience. Here’s my Pocket Map for Finding Holiness:

  1. Prayer. I put my worries and my hopes into words, and I either write them out or say them. When I have no words, I listen, in case God or the Universe or somebody wants to communicate. I also say the prayers of Jewish tradition that help me navigate, that remind me of my path.
  2. Charity. The Hebrew words is tzedakah, but it means giving from the cash resources I have to alleviate the suffering and privation of others. This reminds me that there are many people in the world worse off than I am AND they have to worry about all the other stuff too. Tzedakah helps me keep my perspective.
  3. Acts of Kindness. These are also known in Hebrew as gimilut hasidim. It isn’t enough for me to give money. I spend some time doing acts of kindness, which have gotten tricky in the age of Covid. Used to be, I did volunteer work. Now that I’m sequestering away from the virus, I do acts of kindness by being a better listener when someone needs comfort. After all, I’ve still got the phone and the computer.
  4. Study. Torah study serves several purposes. If I aim high enough at difficult material, studying completely occupies my brain, and gives me relief from worry. I can’t translate Aramaic-infused Hebrew AND perseverate over the government at the same time — I’m just not that smart! — and by studying Torah, I am learning more about that map I’m trying to follow.
  5. Busy Hands. This takes several forms: cleaning the house is mundane self-care, but it also reminds me that I am responsible for my corner of the universe. Gardening gives me a sense of connectedness to the natural world. Knitting literally keeps my hands busy, so that I don’t eat my emotions, and it gives me things to give away to friends and the many support people in my life.
  6. Saying “I love you.” I try not to let a day go by without letting the people I love KNOW that I love them. I might say it straight out, or I might tell them something specific for which I’m grateful. It lifts them up and it lifts me up, too.
  7. Care of the Body. Eating right, keeping clean, and exercising are not glamorous activities, but they are another way of acknowledging my place in creation. I’m a bodily creature, and I’d better take care of this body if I want to keep living in it.
  8. Music and Art. I try to read something good, or look at art, or listen to good music every day. Knitting lets me play with colors, but I also need the art of others. The arts affirm what’s best in humanity, including in me.

Looking back on this list, it seems so mundane! But it’s the truth, it’s what keeps me going. What keeps you going in these difficult times? What is your map to holiness?

For Abuse Survivors: The Most Comforting Verse in the Bible

Periodically I post resources for incest and abuse survivors. This is part of that series. If such content is triggering to you, please just click on by.

כִּי־אָבִ֣י וְאִמִּ֣י עֲזָב֑וּנִי וַֽיהוָ֣ה יַֽאַסְפֵֽנִי׃

When my father and mother abandoned me, YHVH gathered me in.

— Psalm 27: 10

If there is a single verse of the Jewish Bible that speaks most directly and compassionately towards survivors of incest and domestic violence, it is this verse in Psalm 27. I remember the first time I read it, I read one of the conventional English translations, which softens the first clause into a conditional: “Though my father and mother abandon me, YHVH will take me in.” (JPS translation) Even in that weakened state, the verse jumped out at me: I felt seen by the psalmist.

When I learned how to translate Hebrew for myself, I learned that the translator had chickened out, softening the verse. As the scholar Robert Alter has written in his commentary on Psalms, this is perhaps the most shocking line in Psalms, and maybe in Tanakh. Parents abandon a child? Unthinkable!

The hard truth is that sometimes parents fail their children in disastrous ways. The infant-parent bond fails, or a parent is deeply troubled by abuse in their past, and acts it out upon their own child. These things do happen, and apparently the psalmist knew of such families. Maybe he or she had been such a child – we will never know.

I find this verse comforting to say aloud. I can say it in English or in Hebrew. If you would like to say it in Hebrew, here is a transliteration:

Ki avEE v’eeMEE azaVOOni va’AdoNAI ya’as-FAH-nee.

When my father and mother abandoned me, the Holy One took me in.

To me, there is no more comforting line in all of Scripture. Is there another verse that speaks particularly to you?

How Can We Avert this Evil Decree?

Image: A family huddles together wearing surgical masks, while the coronavirus hovers in the background. (Mohamed Hassan / Pixabay)

What? Are we still slogging through this pandemic? Surely it was going to be over by now!

The bad news about Covid-19 is becoming clearer to more and more of us here in the USA. Yes, we are still slogging through it. And no, it isn’t going to be “over” anytime soon or maybe at all. No amount of wishing or happy talk will change that fact.

What CAN change the evil decree, as it says in the High Holy Days liturgy we’ll be reading (over Zoom, or facebook, or in our homes) in September?

The liturgy tells us that “prayer, repentance, and charity” are the recipe for changing the evil decree. But how can that be so? What about science?

Science has its place. Science can give us the information we need to choose our actions. Science can develop treatments and vaccines. But science alone cannot change our behavior, and science alone will not defeat the coronavirus.

Prayer – The Hebrew word for prayer, tefillah, actually translates in English as “to judge oneself.” If we want to “defeat Covid,” we each need to have some serious conversations with ourselves and with God about our behavior. Am I truly doing all I can to avoid spreading Covid-19 by wearing a mask and staying 6 feet away from anyone who isn’t in my immediate household? Or is life one little exception after another? Is there more I could do? Am I pressuring anyone to “loosen up” a bit because I want something?

This may seem to you to be an odd definition of prayer, but many of our understandings from English words are heavily colored by Christian understandings of the words. In the Jewish understanding, prayer can be talking to God, but one does not need to be “religious” or even “spiritual” to pray. Praying can be putting into words what we need and what we feel, or saying words from the tradition and having our own reactions to them. Either way, we pray best when we are totally honest. That’s when prayer can work on our souls and our lives and produce real change.

Repentance – The Hebrew for repentance is teshuvah. It’s more than being sorry. It’s more than a promise to change. I like to say that teshuvah is the Jewish Cure for Guilt, because it is a very specific process for change, or as the root of the word implies, turning things around. We need to make teshuvah about individual behaviors (see “Prayer” above) and we need to make teshuvah as a country. Covid-19 has laid bare so many of the systemic problems in our society: health care based on employment, racial and economic inequities, the undervaluation of essential workers, and the evils of food and housing insecurity, to name but a few. If we hope to “defeat Covid,” we have to address those issues, make changes, and see the process through. Wishing and polite conversation will not do the job. And no, it will not be cheap — this is going to cost tax dollars. The alternative is to have this monster virus circulating indefinitely, fed by reservoirs of infection in the poorest parts of our society.

Systemic change of this sort has to begin with individuals, but it ultimately must involve speaking truth to power. We need political engagement while insisting that our leaders do what is good for ALL of us, not just for their wealthier constituents. And yes, some of us will feel that as loss: losses in tax bills, losses in power, losses in prestige. It will mean seeing gains for some whom we might judge undeserving, but remember: the virus doesn’t care whether someone is deserving or undeserving. It just sees a vulnerable target and reproduces itself.

Charity – If we are speaking Jewish, that’s tzedakah, which is like the other two a very specific concept, not the English “charity.” It is linked to tzedek, justice. To get through the immediate crisis, we have to be willing, individually, to open our purses and give to the institutions that support the vulnerable. We may need to take care of vulnerable relatives with a check or with housing. We may need to ask for help, either for ourselves or for someone else. None of those things are cheap, but then, neither is human life.

And as I said in the section on repentance, as a society we have to begin caring about justice. Justice is not revenge. We need to care about what’s fair, and “I keep all the marbles, they are mine Mine MINE” is not fair or just. We need to stop teaching the idea that “the one who dies with the most toys, wins.” We need to lose “greed is good.” We need to think more creatively than “lock them up.”

Covid-19 is offering us a lesson: each of us is linked to the other. My fate is inextricably linked to that of every other person on the planet. We breathe the same air, we exchange the same micro-organisms, we drink the same water, and no resource is truly unlimited. Whether I like it or not, we are linked. I can choose to see you with compassion, or I can hate your guts, but the virus does not care. It will make its home in any of us, and some of us will suffer horribly for it — and there’s no real test for who is who. A healthy young Broadway actor died after weeks in the hospital. An elderly person with risk factors survived. So let’s not kid ourselves.

Tefilah, teshuvah, and tzedakah can change the evil decree. It isn’t the easy path. But as far as I see, it is the only path that goes where we want to go.

Prayer for a Change of Heart

Ribbono shel Olam, Ruler of all, my heart is broken.

A disease is ravaging my country,

A virus that seems utterly vicious in its attacks on the body.

Some who get it don’t even know they have it,

And others succumb after weeks of suffering.

This plague does not make all suffer equally.

It has turned a spotlight

On the cruelties in America:

The poor suffer more,

The homeless suffer more,

And people of color are especially hard hit,

Because the other disease, the one we have had for 400 years,

Has turned too many hearts to stone,

And has ruined too many lives to count.

We therefore repent of our sins:

The sin of systemic racism,

The sin of extreme income inequality,

And the sins of selfishness and unbounded ego.

You have told us, through your prophet Isaiah:

“Your hands are stained with crime—

“Wash yourselves clean; Put your evil doings away from My sight. Cease to do evil;

“Learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice; Aid the wronged. Uphold the rights of the orphan; defend the cause of the widow.” (Isaiah 1:16-17)

O Holy One, we are listening.

We will cease to do evil and learn to do good, so that

Our hearts of stone will turn back into flesh and blood.

For Your sake — for our own sakes — for the sake of the world —

We can do better, with Your help.

We will devote ourselves to justice.

We will not stand for murder.

We will uphold the rights of poor children and their families,

We will give aid to the wronged.

We make this effort in the knowledge

That we are Your hands in this world and

We can be the instruments of Your love.

Bless this effort, O God: give us the wisdom and strength

To own what is wrong and change it to right.

Then those who sowed with tears shall reap in joy.

Blessed is the one who lifts up the fallen,

who heals the sick,

the Love at the heart of the world.

Amen.

Coping in the Time of Corona

Image: Person with head on arms, worrying. (Shutterstock, all rights reserved.)

When I lived in Israel during the Second Intifada, Israelis had a word that contained all the horror and terror of that period: hamatzav. It means “the situation.” In typical Israeli fashion, it provided an innocuous shorthand for conversation: “No, you don’t want to go to the Damascus Gate – you know, hamatzav.” “Given hamatzav, I don’t recommend going to Machane Yehuda on Friday.” More often, it would be the only word spoken, combined with a shrug and a shake of the head: “Hamatzav.”

The word stood in for all the bad things that could happen if we were in the wrong place at the wrong time – or even a supposedly safe place, but an unlucky time. It stood in for exploded buses, and bodies reduced to scraps on the street. It stood in for death and horror and the worries of our families.

I find myself using it again, holed up here at Beit Adar, which I have only left once since March 11. “Given the situation” prefaces all sorts of conversations, as we try to figure out how to live our lives with as little exposure to other people as possible. As before, I don’t linger on the fears that come with “the situation” lest I become paralyzed.

I pray for the dear-as-a-son-to-me EMT, but I don’t let myself think too much about the details of his days. I pray for my niece the doctor in a big Southern medical center. I pray for the adopted cousin who checks receipts at the door of Costco. I pray for family members who work from home, and I pray that my infant grandson will make it through this with his family intact. I limit my consumption of the news. and I avoid the grisly details of COVID-19 because I don’t want the vortex of fear to suck me down.

Some days, the bad stuff gets to me anyway. Yesterday was like that. I could tell because I felt terminally cranky. I would love to punch the coronavirus in the nose, but it doesn’t work like that.

Today I found a gift, an article in the Washington Post: Anxiety is high because of coronavirus. Here’s how you can feel better. Some of their coronavirus coverage is not behind their usual paywall. In case you can’t get to the article, here’s a summary:

  1. Be intentional about social connections. We have to care for our physical health by isolating, but we also need to care for our emotional health, because it affects our immune functions. Be creative with whatever technology is available to you to stay connected to friends and family.
  2. Research shows that “counting our blessings” actually works. It is important to acknowledge anything good that comes our way. Writing down three things for which we are thankful every day is a valuable spiritual practice. (Rabbinical note: the Jewish practice of saying 100 blessings a day, or at any rate a LOT of blessings daily, fits right into this recommendation.) The point is, allow yourself to feel the gratitude, or if you can’t feel it, at least note that there are things or people in your life that make it better.
  3. Doing something nice for others will make us happier than doing something nice for ourselves. The idea is to move the focus outside ourselves. That can take lots of forms: reaching out to someone lonely, tipping extra for a delivery, writing a card or letter to send to someone. (Rabbinical note: Mitzvot!)
  4. A final bit of advice: “Give yourself and your family members more self-compassion and more of a benefit of the doubt than you usually would.”

This matzav, this situation, is truly awful: there’s no way to sugarcoat it. I found that those four suggestions gave me a road map that I needed to get back on track. I hope it is helpful to you, too.

What have you found that helps you cope right now?

Sheltering in Place, Feeling Lonely?

Image: Person sitting on a windowsill, looking out. (Pexels / Pixabay)

We are living through an unprecedented time. A pandemic is traveling around the globe, a very contagious disease that can cause, in some, a horrible death. Many of our scientists say our best hope for survival is to try to keep the rate of infection down by sheltering at home, to keep the disease from overwhelming our medical personnel and facilities.

Know that if you are sheltering in place, you are doing a mitzvah. You are one less vector of disease out on the street. You are saving lives.

If you are out and about because you are an “essential worker” (medical, infrastructure, law enforcement, first responder, etc.) you are also doing a mitzvah. You are literally saving lives and keeping the lights on. God bless you.

If you are out and about because someone needs groceries, or assistance, you are doing a mitzvah, as well. Just be sure that you do everything in your power to prevent infecting others and to keep yourself healthy.

Staying home – or going only to do essential work – can be boring. Most of us human beings have an inborn desire to be out and doing, to be social. However, if we are not extremely aggressive about distancing ourselves from others right now, we will endanger ourselves, our families, and countless others. So what are we social creatures to do?

  1. Use the phone and video to connect with family and friends. I talk every day to my sons and their partners, and to my grandson. It breaks my heart not to see and touch them, but having some contact keeps it bearable. You may even want to set aside a time when you always talk – routine can be very comforting. Unless you really need to talk about something difficult, avoid arguments. Focus on sharing love.
  2. Use social media wisely. Use social media to connect with friends, and to learn about online events and resources that will sustain you. Do not repeat rumors, speculate, or seek out conspiracy theories, even for “fun.”
  3. Learn and/or pray and/or play with others online. Look for learning opportunities, prayer opportunities, and play opportunities online. I will list a few I know about in my next post.
  4. Revive the art of letter writing. You can email someone without any physical contact at all. You can write a letter to a friend — there is something special about a card or a handwritten letter. If someone in your circle dies, you can write the mourners with your memories of that person.
  5. If you know someone at home with children right now, contact them and ask if you can help via video, reading a story aloud or doing a “show and tell.” If they say “no, thank you” respect that, but it might be a real gift to a parent trying to work from home while juggling children as well. Teens don’t want someone to “read them a story” but they may still enjoy a chance for an audience that isn’t parental. With them, listening is the most important thing: they need adults to listen to how this situation feels to them.
  6. If you have a skill that might entertain others, share it! You can do that by making a YouTube video, or a tutorial posted to Facebook, or via a video chat.
  7. Reconnect: what about using social media to reach out to old high school classmates, friends from some previous time, to touch base?
  8. Exercise. I find that when I’m feeling irritable and lonely, working up a good sweat can lift my spirits. What you do exactly will depend on your ability and your fitness, but be creative. Also there are some great resources online for free exercise videos, etc.
  9. Take political action: Write or call your elected officials and tell them what you think of the job they are doing right now.
  10. Take social justice action: Donate or raise funds for local organizations that care for people in need. The income gap in our economy means that this is a time of severe injustices: homelessness was bad before, but now it puts people at high risk for COVID-19. Hunger was bad before, but now it weakens the immune systems of young and old alike. If you have any extra funds, share what you can. If you don’t have extra funds, you can still help by “signal boosting” on social media – share opportunities for others to do good.

If you have other ideas about dealing with loneliness, I hope you will share them in the comments.

While We are Home, Things We Can Do to Help

Image: Cat stares at a door, wanting out. (Krystyna Kaleniewicz / Pixabay)

I’m 65, with significant risk factors relative to COVID-19. My wife is 71, and has even more risk factors. We are doing our best to isolate as completely as we can. I am aware that I am a happier person when I feel useful, which is why I’m teaching more free classes. (See Growing Jewishly in a Challenging Year: Options for Study Online.)

Today the SF Bay Area county health departments asked everyone to shelter in place at home for three weeks beginning midnight on March 17 (tonight.)

Isolating is not a selfish or cowardly act. We are saving lives by staying home, washing hands, not touching our faces, not overloading the hospitals, and doing all the things the health professionals say. The example of Italy should be all the warning we require as we try to “flatten the curve” of the pandemic.

Here are some ideas for ways to spend our time and improve our lives and the lives of others while we are doing our part to flatten the curve:

  • Continue being careful at home – when were your doorknob and doorbell last cleaned with disinfectant?
  • Go through they rolodex or the directory on my phone – who do I know who may be feeling very lonely and scared? Give them a call and listen more than talk. Listening is helping right now. Reach out via email, if phones aren’t the best option.
  • On social media, I watch who spreads reliable news, and who spreads titillating rumors. I follow the reliable news spreaders, and unfollow the rumor mongers. I refuse to let their garbage work on my head.
  • Now is a great time to revive our spiritual practices, or to develop one: meditate, or pray, or exercise with spiritual intent.
  • Now is a great time to learn! Take an online class, use software to learn a foreign language, read, read, read! YouTube and other online resources can have you exchanging greetings in Hebrew in no time.
  • Public libraries often offer access to e-books.
  • Eat as healthfully as we can.
  • Get enough sleep! Sleep boosts our immune systems, and too many people are on a sleep deficit.
  • Exercise is important. Stretch, lift weights (books?), do a little cardio. I do 20 minutes of exercise every day. If you are in an apartment, call or leave a note to the people downstairs asking when the best time for you to make noise.
  • Tzedakah: for those of us financially secure enough to do so, this is a great time to give to charities that care for people with food or housing insecurity.
  • Do you have fantasies about writing a book? This is a great time to keep a diary: we are living through history.
  • We need to care for our pets. Appreciate their company. It isn’t a great time for cats or dogs to run around outside, though: if they get lost, we cannot go look for them.
  • Passover is coming! We each need to prepare according to our observance and our situation. (See Passover Prep: Begin in Egypt.) (More about Passover in a future post.)
  • Be kind to other members of our households. This is a stressful time, and it’s easy to get cranky. It’s a good time to practice appreciation and to let criticism go.
  • Find a synagogue that streams services online. Start with your local community but I will see about posting a list of streaming services in a later post.
  • Count our blessings, beginning with life and breath.
  • Be aware that there are some who are in difficult situations, with unpleasant or abusive housemates. Hold them in our hearts.

Ideas for those home with children:

  • Make and decorate cards and send them to loved ones (or save for later delivery.) Index cards or folded printer paper make great cards. “Junk mail” can make collages.
  • Reading to kids and letting them read to us – and to each other! – is a wonderful activity.
  • Beware too much scary news on TV.
  • Make puppets out of old socks, and rehearse a show for the adults to watch when they take a break from home-work!
  • Put music on – everyone dance!
  • This is a great opportunity to teach age-appropriate household skills to kids. Even little ones can “dust” with a cloth.
  • Set up phone and video chats for the kids with their friends and with family they can’t visit right now.
  • For older kids, this might be a great time to learn a craft. YouTube has lots of great videos, and both knitting and crochet can be learned with any string, if you have needles or a hook.
  • Use YouTube to learn Jewish songs, and songs from your family’s heritage.

Abuse Survivors: Surviving the News

Image: Person sitting on a bench. (Ryan McGuire from Pixabay )

Whenever there is a high profile case of sexual crime in the news, those of us subject to bad memories may have a rough time of it. Even if the news is good (justice is done) our reactions may pose a challenge, bringing up a round of anger, distraction, anxiety, or numbness.

I try to remind myself that I’m having a normal reaction to an abnormal set of experiences. In other words, my emotions are not some sort of failure on my part. They are the same emotions that kept me alive and that brought me to this day, and as such, I respect them. Any fault lies with the person or people who caused my injuries, not with me.

It’s up to me to cope with the situation in the present. Here are some strategies for dealing with a survivor’s responses to sex crimes in the news:

  1. Turn off the TV, the radio, and social media. We are not required to be 100% informed about every aspect of the news. There is no quiz coming. It is healthy to turn off the news when it is upsetting. Much of it is framed in a way to keep us tuned in (“After the commerical, we’ll interview so-and-so” ) but you already have the basic information, so turn it off.
  2. Make use of the comforts that work for you. Hug your pet. Curl up with a favorite blanket. Watch reruns of shows you find comforting. Exercise. Go outdoors. Walk the dog. Pray. Focus on work. Play empowering music. Do the things that have comforted or strengthened you in the past.
  3. Reach out. If you have a therapist, check in with them. Tell your spouse or partner what’s going on with you. Tell a good friend you are having a rough time.
  4. If you want advice, ask for it. If you don’t want advice, say so. The people who love us cannot read our minds. Speaking up about advice – either way! – is a way of taking control of our lives, and of being responsible for our emotions.
  5. Express your feelings. Write, make art, make music, dance, exercise, put those feelings out there in the world, instead of leaving them to fester inside. Don’t worry about grammar or making art for the ages, just express yourself. If a masterpiece accidentally results, wonderful, but right now just focus on getting what is inside OUT.
  6. Be wary of self-medication. Some things masquerade as “comforts” but don’t serve us very well. Be aware that alcohol is a depressant drug, and some cannabis can evoke paranoia. Many prescription drugs can be useful if used according to directions, but they are harmful if misused
  7. For spiritual resources, see Jewish Resources for Abuse Survivors. For many of us, the damage is spiritual as well as physical or emotional, so spiritual healing is part of the larger process of recovery.
  8. Finally, if you feel an urge to self-harm of any sort, REACH OUT. Call a therapist, or call the National Sex Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (800-656-4673) or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-8255.

There is a Jewish saying for times like these: Gam zeh ya’avor – “This too shall pass.” The news will change, the world will go on, the past will keep receding into the past, and with effort and support, healing can take place. Today is not forever.

Prayer in a Time of Uncertainty

Image: A narcissus flower. (Shutterstock, all rights reserved.)

Oh Holy One, I do not know what is going to happen next.

Too much of life seems uncertain to me, and the future is unknown.

I am surrounded by foolish voices: are they foolish, or am I? I fear the worst, and I cannot even imagine what it is.

Help me to discern those things that I can control. Help me to release the rest.

Guide me to mitzvot that I can do. Show me how I can be helpful to others and increase the good in the world.

May I mirror those who do me a kindness, and may I be untroubled by those who wish to do me harm.

Sim shalom, oh Holy One, make peace among us, now and in the coming days.

Amen.

Mitzvah Goreret Mitzvah

Image: Two hands knitting. One stitch leads to another, just as one mitzvah leads to another.

It’s one of those weeks. I am battling through a round of depression. The blog has suffered, I know.

I will be back soon, I promise. In the meantime, I suggest you join me on the path I’m taking: mitzvah goreret mitzvah, let one mitzvah lead you to another mitzvah. If we follow that path, we will find our way through the dark.