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Pulling Down the Statues

Jews have never been statue people. Ever. We don’t respond well to the glorification of humans in sculpture form. And that’s because God has let it be known, from the very beginning of our long relationship, that God doesn’t like it. It’s not just the idolatry prohibition either. It’s about the glorification of the human form, a kind of deification cast in a mold or chiseled out of granite, then propped up for the worshipful masses. It has what they call in Yiddish a strong element of past nisht, something that’s just improper.

I might be wrong, but to my knowledge there are few, if any, statues of Jewish dignitaries in Israel – or anywhere else, for that matter. For instance, there’s a mountain in Jerusalem named after Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism. But there’s no statue of him on the mountain that bears his name. At the site of Ben Gurion’s grave there is no statue. Instead there is a large stone slab with his name – and that of his wife’s name – on the edge of the wilderness where he lived out his long life.

From a Jewish perspective, no one – not even Moses – deserves to be worshipped or adored in stone. It’s not the physical form that is relevant. Rather, it’s the deeds and the ideas of humans that we revere. It’s not a statue we ask for. We want access to someone’s thoughts. Give us their books. Let us evaluate and then re-evaluate their essence, not a two-dimensional heroic image.

I know that there are other religious traditions that use icons and images in a way that we do not. I respect those traditions and the ways in which these representations are serious aspects of how they express their faith. I grew up in a small city that was very Catholic, with an emphatic Sicilian interpretation. There were thousands of Mary Magdalene statues. I get it.

It’s one thing when a family creates a religious shrine in their own space. It’s quite another when statues are erected in public spaces at public expense. Statues cast people in permanence. This is not a good idea, based on the fact that humans are fallible – that people who are praised may in time be revealed as not praiseworthy. Christopher Columbus, for example, turns out to have been the first transatlantic slave dealer. It’s not that he didn’t do some symbolic discovering. And he’s been a part of American mythology for centuries. However, it turns out, there’s a lot more that’s negative to say about him. His story is over. 

It’s time to create a new mythology, one that’s more inclusive, more sensitive to the origin stories of others. It’s time to pull down the statues of exclusivity and exclusion. It’s time to recognize that the regalia of the Confederacy, its stars and bars and its generals and its desperate defense of slavery and slaveowners is not some quaint Civil War story, but rather a tragedy of America.  That tragedy is surprisingly unknown by Americans. We don’t know our history. This seems like the time to start learning it.

It’s time to pull down the statues of those who actively sought to deny the rights of others. The story of America is ready for a rewrite. It’s time to widen the scope of our mythology. It’s time for indigenous peoples to be more than props in our story, time for the pain and testimony of Black folk to be more than a one month a year observance.

Don’t worry about our place in it all. Pulling down statues makes way for new ideas, more knowledge, more truth. That’s always good. The Jewish immigrant experience will not be erased. The Holocaust will not become an insignificant horror. We will continue to be a part of the American myth. We can all certainly be magnanimous enough to make room. And when we pull down the last offensive statue, we will get to the real work: pulling away our own prejudice to make way for a newer America, seeking greatness through diversity and compassion.

What Next

Robert Hunter may have said it best in one of his most famous songs, Truckin. “What a long, strange trip it’s been.“ So much has changed over these past months. So many of the things we took for granted as a matter of course are now precious acts we wish we could reclaim. Hugging people we love. Laughing with friends at a favorite restaurant. Grabbing a coffee and schmoozing. Working out in the gym. 

And, of course, being inside the temple. 

I think about the temple constantly. All of that beautifully renovated space along with a truly exquisite new community room. It sits there, just waiting for us. What will it be like when we can finally walk in? 

Of course, the fantasy is that when High Holy Days come we will enter together, laughing and crying and hugging each other. That feeling we get looking around at our community gathered together for a new year is a signature experience. Seeing old friends, sharing stories, remembering loved ones who are gone, singing familiar melodies, feeling gratitude… there’s nothing like it. 

 Alas… It’s just a fantasy. As much as we may want to enter, the fact is simply this: it’s too risky. There will be no High Holy Day gatherings inside Temple Beth Avodah for 5781.  

We’ve looked at this from a thousand angles and, in the end, our choices must be made from a collective perspective. We know that it’s not safe for our older congregants. It’s not safe for immunocompromised congregants. It’s not even safe to sing!  

There will be opportunities for small groups to one day be in the temple. Our Early Learning Center and our school will open, adhering to all guidelines for health and safety. But. We will always place the welfare of our congregants at the top of our list of concerns. We must be apart in body, but we will be connected by our deep sense of community and tradition. 

Our history as a congregation, our history as a people, has taught us many things about survival. We’ve learned a lot about resilience and courage. We’ve learned to create alternatives where there were none. COVID-19 will not deter us.  

This year the High Holy Days  will primarily use online platforms – a combination of pre-recorded and live content . We’ll provide you with the tools you need to be a part of our communal experience. It will be spiritually alive, provocative, embracing, joyful, reflective, and even more than that. That’s a promise . We will not gather  in the sanctuary, but we will have each other: online, on Zoom, and a whole variety of other platforms. We are in this together.  

Will it be utterly different? Absolutely. Will it be unlike anything we’ve ever done before? 100%. Are we creating a new paradigm for worship and congregational life? Yes, and it is immensely challenging and very exciting. When we emerge, we will be different; we will be transformed. We will remember to cherish things a little bit more, to hold the people we love a little bit closer, and to embrace even more firmly what it means to be part of an engaged, living community. The door to the heart of Temple Beth Avodah will always be open. The sacred light of our community will continue to shine. 

Juneteenth

It’s staggering to think about all the things we never learned in school about the founding of our nation. We celebrated Columbus Day with the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. We talked about how Columbus discovered America as if it were vacant land, waiting just for him. I thought it was the Mayflower and making friends on Thanksgiving. I really thought it was cowboys and Indians and war whoops. And while there was this thing called slavery for a few years in the South, we won the Civil War, and then the slaves were emancipated. And then everything just progressed from there. And sure, there was segregation and Jim Crow down in Mississippi and so forth, but not in my little city up North. 

The aphorism, “History is written by the victors,” has never been more starkly defined. We are so woefully unaware of anything that falls outside of the sanitized privileged retelling of our origins. For instance, no one told me that Columbus sailed home from his second voyage to the New World with over a thousand captives bound for slave auctions in Cádiz (many died en route, their bodies tossed overboard). No one mentioned that Columbus was the first transatlantic human trafficker. Like Rebecca West once said, “It is sometimes very hard to tell the difference between history and the smell of a skunk.”

Slavery in America was “a massive institution that shaped and defined the political economy of colonial America, and later, the United States” … an “institution (that) left a profound legacy for the descendants of enslaved Africans, who even after emancipation were subject to almost a century of violence, disenfranchisement, and pervasive oppression, with social, economic, and cultural effects that persist to the present.”

I didn’t learn that in school. I didn’t see the direct link between slavery and the bloody civil rights campaign of Martin Luther King. That was not in the 6th-grade curriculum. It didn’t occur to me – and how could it, given the information I had? – that the violence against Black people I saw on tv from Selma, police attacking nonviolent demonstrators with truncheons and dogs and fire hoses was a direct extension of slavery and the deep desire of some white people to keep Black folk in their place?

The long legacy of American slavery casts an appalling shadow on the character and substance of our country. The continuing violence against people of color underscores the deep roots of racism and the pathetic ongoing attempts to justify it or contextualize it.

Juneteenth celebrates a belated liberation. Enslaved people in the Confederacy who didn’t manage to escape across Union lines or find themselves in occupied territory were not all made free by Lincoln’s proclamation. They had to wait until the end of the Civil War to take their first free breaths. In isolated Texas, word of the official end of the fighting, the surrenders of Generals Robert E. Lee and Joseph E. Johnston, and the capture of President Jefferson Davis through May 1865 arrived late. Freedom finally came to Texas on June 19 of that year, after a proclamation by General Gordon Granger in Galveston solidified the emancipation of the quarter-million enslaved people in the state.

So what if we, as a nation, decided to adopt Juneteenth as a national holiday? What if we used that day for reflection and commitment to change? What if Juneteenth became a new line in the sand, a marker for when we finally started to right wrongs and engage in social action and legislative change and connection to the world as it is and as we wish – as we demand – it become?

Various civic leaders across the US have begun talking about adding Juneteenth to the canon of US holidays. I listened to mayor of Boston, Marty Walsh, give a rather lukewarm nod to the possibility of such a thing happening in Massachusetts. He was concerned that it may be difficult. “it would add to costs in the city, because it’s overtime, and we’d have to work it into all the contracts… I mean, I support it. If the Legislature does it, I support it wholeheartedly. But we’d have to look at how does it happen — does it fall on a date, does it fall on a weekend? You know, the date might be in the middle of the week. . . So there’s a lot of conversation.”

Yes. There is a lot of conversation, as there should be. And I hope the response to those conversations will be action. There is so much to learn and so much to do. We will engage on both levels as we move forward in earnest. We cannot go forth a la Don Quixote, tilting at windmills. We must be deliberate. We must study together to be truly able to write the new American story. This is it. Time’s up.

Juneteenth is the purest distillation of the evils that still plague America and a celebration of the good people who fought those evils. It is tragedy and comedy, hope and setbacks. As a national holiday, Juneteenth, immersed as it is in both the canon of old history and the ongoing struggle for civil rights, would be the only one that celebrates liberty in America as it actually is: delayed.

A New Narrative

I have become a sort of answer man for my grandson, Caleb — something I dearly love (which will come as no surprise to anyone who even vaguely knows me). “Hey Bebop [my grandfather name]”, Caleb will say, and I know a question is coming. “Hey Bebop, why do people pray in Hebrew even if no one understands it?” “Hey Bebop, are monkey brains the same as human brains?” You know, easy questions… not.

This past week as we walked along the Brewster Flats, Caleb looked out at the incoming tide and asked, “Hey Bebop, does the same water come back every day?”The question was so simple — and so profound. What about it, Bebop? How does one even define the terms of the flow of the ocean, the water molecules, the salt content, the effect of storms and erosion? How to even begin to truly understand that it is never the same ocean two days in a row, that the circulation of water from the sea and under the sand make it all brand new every day, every moment? How lucky I am to share my wonder with the Universe with my grandchildren, who are wonders of my Universe…

Jonah and Maggie sent me a few pictures of my grandkids last week. Caleb and Sylvie were holding signs at a demonstration against racism and police brutality. I was at once proud and crushed. Proud, because as a child of the 60s and a believer in living a life of social justice, seeing 2 generations of my progeny making a statement was a thrilling affirmation of their values and beliefs. Crushing, because my grandchildren in particular, at their young age, are facing one of the most horrible truths of American life: long-standing, sanctioned systemic racism. And the more they learn about it, the more they will feel betrayed by a false narrative that has been stoked by bigots and haters and ignorant politicians — and me, too. Through benign neglect and looking the other way and just not wanting to think about it, I play a part in the betrayal.

I’m not convinced a lot of white people like me beating our breasts and acknowledging our ignorance and neglect and complicity in the systemic racism of American justice in all its variations is what’s currently called for. There will be time to share our sense of shame and disappointment and failure. And I know that acknowledging the depth of those sins is key to building a whole soul, not to mention a whole nation.

But what’s called for now is not a confessional movement. Instead what’s called for is a dedication to action, to truly engaging in our tradition’s declaration of Tikkun Olam. Let’s learn how to be anti-racists. Let’s engage with projects and people that will begin to shift the narrative. Let’s push hard in the upcoming elections to choose leaders who will acknowledge the systemic racism of America and then dare to build a new narrative of equity.Status quo is so easy, so simple. But we are living in a period of transformation. It’s time to pull down the statues that praise a fake past. The American narrative has to be actively engaged and widened to include the stories of those men and women of color and the indigenous peoples who were forcibly silenced over hundreds of years.

It’s going to be painful and uncomfortable. It’s going to make us squirm sometimes. But it will ultimately give us a nation of honest interchange, a new opening to a dynamic that will make us all stronger and wiser as a collection of races and creeds and genders. It will unite us.

I want this for of all those who have suffered. I want this for George Floyd and the scandalously long list of those who have been murdered and beaten for the crime of being Black. I want this as a Jew with a long history of oppression and murder who now has power and the will to make a difference for those who suffer as my ancestors once suffered.

And I want this for my grandkids. I want to have a conversation with them someday about what changed in 2020, in the midst of a crazy pandemic. I want them to teach me about the America that is finally being taught in their classrooms, the home of the free and the brave — and the enslaved and the oppressed. One day I hope Caleb or Sylvie will ask, “Hey Bebop, so what changed in 2020?” I hope I can answer, “We did.”

Taking a Breath

Whenever someone asks me how I’m feeling, I have to stop and consider the question. Physically, I feel fabulous. My health Is tip-top. My numbers, as they say, are excellent.

But I’m exhausted by this long trek in the desert of Covid. I’m missing the loving connections of hugs. I’m aching over the tragic murder of George Floyd. I’m raging over the systemic racism that has allowed people of color to be so continuously undervalued by every conceivable measure. I’m measuring all the ways I have not done even nearly enough to ameliorate the wreckage of racism in America, which makes me feel guilty and complicit. How am I? My soul is tired.

How are you?

I sense most of you feel the way I do. Stop the world, I want to get off. It’s too much to take. The sadness is deep. The problems appear too vast to tackle.

Sometimes its like a bruise you just keep bumping, or a place on your lip you just keep biting. It hurts! It’s aggravating. And it seems so random.

And so I feel defeated and overwhelmed. By the sheer intensity of evil and what seems like the sheer weight of history. It’s that metaphor so often used, of how hard it is to change the direction of a ship. It’s so hard and so complicated…

I fully intended to use this week’s Before Shabbat to announce, as I usually do around this time, that I was beginning my summer writing hiatus. I figured I’d pick up Before Shabbat again in September. After all, I wanted to say, I need to take a bit of a break. I planned to say that I needed some room to just sit back and breathe.

You picked it up too, right? The word, ‘breathe’. I have the room, the privilege to take a breath. But George Floyd did not. All he wanted was to breathe — and he was prevented from doing so. His breath his neshama, which is the same word as soul, was robbed from him. In broad daylight. By an agent of the state.

So now is not the time to sit back and take a breath to massage my sore soul. Let my breath be for speaking words of compassion for my fellow citizens of color. Let my next breath be for speaking out against intolerance and injustice. Let my next breath be an admission that I can do more in the name of justice.

So no breaks just yet. There’s too much to be done.

This Sunday we are honored to be joined by Darnell Williams, the former head of the Urban League of Boston, and Keith McDermott, the former head of he Reggie Lewis Center. Both of these men have made profound contributions to the lives of Black and Brown citizens of Boston. I anticipate listening to their stories, learning their stories, and being challenged to do the right thing.

Eldridge Cleaver once wrote, “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”

These Times

Have you ever been in a car that’s running out of gas? the gauge ominously rests flat in the red. You’re sweating with anxiety as you watch the road for a sign of redemption. But there’s no place to pull over. The car jerks as it sucks down the last bit of fuel and vapor… and finally stalls out. Our nation is stalled on the side of the road. The tank has been emptied by weeks and weeks of Covid19. All the sickness, the angst, the stories, the deaths of over 100,000 Americans… How to stay safe. How to protect others. When to wear a mask. What about gloves? Who can you hug? And what about opening up businesses again? What are the rules? And if that were not enough to deplete the gas tank, there’s the unemployment numbers. Then: the murder of George Floyd. I watched the bystander video shortly after it was released. I wasn’t prepared for what I saw: a brazen acting out of the awful legacy of racism in our country. No amount of cheering, “USA! USA!” will drown out a grown man’s cry for his mother as he is being tortured and killed by men in uniforms and badges. What a terribly hard week it has been… the cloud of smoke from protests turned to riots turned to violence and looting mixes with the cloud of pain and sadness that hovers above our nation.
We are stalled on the side of the road. And we can’t call for roadside assistance. No one is coming to save us. The profound lack of leadership and the even more appalling lack of empathy from Washington, force us to find our way forward. We are the ones who must decry racism and its deep hold on a segment of our nation. We are the ones who must acknowledge the extent to which Black lives have not and do not matter. We are the ones who must decide what the future looks like and how we’ll get back on the road. Yvonne Abraham recently wrote a fabulous, informative op-ed piece in the Globe. She reminds us that we are all disgusted by the vandalism and looting that occurred in Boston and many other American cities. But if that’s as far as we take it, we will have missed the larger takeaway of this past week. That justice deferred is justice denied. That there is a reckoning, long overdue, that must be acknowledged. We have to move forward in peaceful dialogue. There is no room for defensiveness or name-calling or finger-pointing. This a time for truth, a central pillar of civilization that has been actively assailed and ignored in recent years. We are the ones who must be brave enough to listen to the ways injustice has ruined lives, has taken lives. There’s a lethargy that can set in when stalled by the side of the road. It’s scary and overwhelming. But it’s time to start thinking about what we can do now, how to start pushing ourselves in a new direction, and there find the fuel of compassion and understanding. We’ll figure out how we can do our share in this new period in the life of our country. We will all surely lean into our prophetic tradition, to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.” There is a better way — let’s find it. rebhayim

Here are some links to investigate. To be continued… Statement from the URJSomeplace to donate fundsStatement of the Anti Defamation LeagueWhat can you do?

Torah Torah Torah

Torah is the iconic representation of the Jewish people. It is the foundation upon which we construct our sense of peoplehood and purposefulness. It defines our direction in life, our very raison d’etre.

If you were to ask a rabbi from Chabad, from the Aleph renewal movement, from a Reconstructionist synagogue, from a modern Orthodox synagogue, from a Reform synagogue – and a few other rabbis thrown in because, why not… — you would get a plethora of definitions for Torah. Some would claim Torah was given by God to Moses on Mt Sinai and that the mitzvot within it are divinely mandated. Some would say that the Torah is a human document, a collection of myth and law and custom that began as oral tradition and was completed in written form after the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE. Still, others would say that it’s a divinely inspired human document and that the mitzvot within it evolve over time.

Perhaps, in the end, this stark combination of fundamentally disparate definitions of the Torah has to do with its authority in our lives. For some, the interpretation of the Torah through Jewish law determines virtually everything they do. For Reform Jews, the jurisdiction of the Torah is not about God’s command, but our understanding of our moral obligations to each other to ourselves, into the rest of the world.

Today is Shavuot, the holiday that we traditionally observe to celebrate having received the Torah. There aren’t many traditions around this holiday, except for two: staying up all night studying and eating dairy products. Staying up all night and studying is part of a more profound mystical tradition. The dairy products are about envisioning the words of Torah as mother’s milk.

I’m okay with the first custom. But the second one is more problematic, not because I have any problems with digesting lactose. My hard time has to do with looking at words of Torah as being so nurturing. I have been doing Torah studies with adults every week, give or take a summer, for 40 years. And while we have come upon some very nurturing texts, the text overwhelmingly tends to be laconic, obscure, harsh, and occasionally cruel.

The text itself does not provide much in the way of comfort. There’s nothing really warm and yummy about Torah. The part that really makes the difference is the reader in the process of interpreting. The longevity of the Torah is only assured when we accept the challenge of struggling with its contents. We are the ones that have to wrest meaning from it.

The process of meaning-making is an essential component of postmodern Judaism. It challenges us to acknowledge when the tradition strays far from our sense of dignity and compassion. It pushes us to extract the essence of Jewish ethics from the deep thicket of an ancient text.

Over years of Torah study,  we have often discussed what the intent of the author might have been, and how we are to respond to that. Sometimes our postmodern sensibilities are deeply offended by what seems to be an utterly insensitive God in a harsh and unforgiving literary context. We always reach this point where we have to jettison how people understood and sometimes continue to follow the text in favor of a new interpretation. We don’t do this lightly. But we do it because we believe that Torah is not a stagnant vestige of long ago. It is as if we resuscitate it every time we open it, every time we embrace it, every time we have to stop and shake our heads, saddened by its omissions and inconsistencies.

Today is Shavuot, a day of gladness. And even as Jews vehemently disagree about what the Torah demands from us, it’s worth noting that when we trace the deepest roots of our understandings, they all lead to the same source. In a world that feels so out of whack, it’s reassuring that we share this foundation of Torah, in all its forms and interpretations.

Remembering Memorial Day

My old friend, David Wrubel and I, speak regularly. We’ve known each other for more than 50 years. By now, we have a massive compendium of stories covering every aspect of our lives. We don’t dwell much on past glories or ignominious missteps. Frankly, we have enough going on in our lives – most of it quite good, really – that generally precludes us lapsing into past glories or foibles.

But the other day, David went for a deep dive set of Memorial Day recollections. We lived in different towns and went to different high schools. But we were both in the school band. I don’t know what David played. I played the cymbals, which was one of the coolest, most sought after gigs ever…

The Memorial Day drill was the same for both us. Up early Monday morning, full band regalia on (heavy white blazer, thick black pants, classic black, plastic-brimmed military style hat), I’d schlep to the high school parking lot, climb on the yellow school bus. We’d unload several blocks from the Middletown green, our ultimate destination, instruments in hand.

There was another high school at the other end of Middletown. It was a nicer, newer place with a tonier group of kids. Their band, directed by  Bruce Schmottlach [I don’t remember where I put my keys, but I still remember the band director from the OTHER school]  was larger and much classier. The MHS band, led by Santo Fragilio, was a funkier and slightly disreputable assortment of geeks and stoners and whatnot. If you ever saw the movie, Stripes, well that gang was us.

We would all be lined up in a large parade formation. Our band was mercifully placed first, towards the front. Thus, we were spared the embarrassment sure to come if we had followed the superior musicians of Woodrow Wilson. It was a scene.

There were a number of different organizations that marched in the Memorial Day parade: Police, National Guard, Knights of Columbus, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and so on. And always sharing a prominent position were the vets.

There were always a few WWI survivors along with a much larger contingent of WWII vets, most of them in their garrison caps. In those years (1968-1972), I don’t remember a very large presence of Vietnam vets. But I know they were there.

I know that Vietnam was in our heads, that all of my male band compatriots marching along, playing patriotic tunes, had to be thinking, “What if I get drafted?” I was surely pondering that question. It was terrifying.

As a kid, I was fascinated by WWII, by the good guys vs the bad guys. It was utterly ambiguous. To be so clearly identified as the liberators, saving the world from unimaginable pain, was so reassuring. That was a trope of American culture, a foundational truth of my childhood.  It began to take a beating in Korea, only to fall apart in Vietnam. Ever since then, in Iraq and Afghanistan, in Cambodia and Laos, there’s nothing but blurred lines.

At the Middletown Green, after all of the marchers took their places, there were the speeches, and I can’t tell you what anyone said. But I do remember when they played Taps. I remember seeing crusty old men, guys who had waded up to their shoulders in swamp, guys who sat in foxholes in utter panic, deafened by the sounds of mortar and artillery shells, overwhelmed by the crackle of gunfire, guys whose souls were brutalized by war. They saluted as the bugle sounded, tears running down their cheeks as they remembered the friends they lost, as they remembered the pieces of their souls sacrificed on battlefields so far away. As Taps ended, the vets would pull out handkerchiefs and hastily wipe up their tears. The crowd would disperse, and we’d walk to our school bus.

Of course, there are still good guys and bad guys in war. There are the tyrants and the oppressors and the liberators. But if I learned anything on the town green, it is that we’d better be exquisitely certain about what this nation is doing when we send young men and women into harm’s way in the name of America. The losses we sustain are too high to squander even one person’s life. And we have lost so many lives.

May the memory of all of those men and women who gave their lives for our country rest in peace.

Windchimes

Thursday may have the most beautiful day yet in 2020. The sky a deep cerulean blue, the sunshine warm upon my face. A gentle wind wafted through, and my windchimes pealed quietly.

Maybe it was the windchimes. Or perhaps it was the heat of the sun… But I closed my eyes in a mid-day reverie. And I located myself in the moment – the very moment in which I existed. There was nothing else but my molecules vibrating amongst everyone else’s molecules, which were, in turn, vibrating with every thing’s molecules. In that short interval, that click of moments passing at the speed of light, I experienced the embrace of the eternal present.

To clarify: I was not under the influence of anything herbal or fermented. I was not seeking this experience. There was no premeditated series of steps to follow. My mind was simply clear of any clutter, anxiety, or fear.

Suddenly there was room for something else, something like appreciation, like God’s grace. The words from Psalm 118:24 flashed to consciousness: “This is the day Adonai has made! Let’s rejoice and be happy in it!” And just like that, I was filled with what the undefinable Hebrew word, shalva, describes: tranquility, peace of mind, alpha state, Zen…

We miss things all the time, distracted by the static of our loud and busy lives. We are distracted by a barrage of messages and calls and texts and God knows what else.  They call out distracted driving – talking or texting while operating a motor vehicle – as the leading cause of injury and death on the highway. In truth, we often drive distracted through our lives. We miss quiet calls for attention or love or warning. Something as majestic and as fleeting as a double rainbow, or a particular melody, can be lost because of nonsense or call waiting or sheer overload.

I get it. We are all so distracted by very real concerns. Any number of things set off anxiety chain reactions, and those fears are all utterly legit. I do not minimize the burdens we carry in these times. I do not appreciate reminders like, “This is not bad; the Holocaust was bad.” I know the Holocaust was a time of unspeakable cruelty and genocide. But don’t tell me that Hitler and Stalin and Mao and Pol Pot make my current pain and fear any less real. It is. Period. Some of us are like breezy beach novels. Others are like Russian literature: dark and brooding.  One isn’t ‘better’ or ‘truer’ than the other.

The founder of Hasidism, the Baal Shem Tov, once taught, “The world is full of wonders and miracles; but we take our hands, and cover our eyes, and see nothing.” Sitting outside on Thursday in the perfection of a Spring day, I was able to uncover my eyes. I was able to rejoice and to be happy in the day.

Bad things will continue to happen to good people; it is the way of the world. There’s nothing to be done about it. However, this fundamental truth of existence and suffering does not negate a beautiful day. Seeing a beautiful day – being a beautiful day, if you will, is a gift of grace, a reminder that life is not either/or, but rather, yes/and.

We’re covering our eyes. A lot. How could we be doing otherwise? But through the gloom are places that beguile and inspire, sedate and stir, places where, for a few blissful moments, we are transported to a wholly holy plane, if just for a few, double rainbow moment of shalva. Take your hands from your eyes. Breathe. Smile.

Romaine

A couple of years ago, while perusing the Internet,  my wife came upon a picture of romaine lettuce. Not just any romaine lettuce, mind you. It was a romaine lettuce heart, root down in some water. And it was growing!

Liza has the mindset of 18th century Jews from central Europe, who experienced enormous deprivation: persecution, hunger, and generally, a bad time. She will save scraps of food even though she knows that no one will eat it, including herself. We have at any given time, a collection of Chinese food plasticware shoved into the refrigerator, filled with a piece and a half of wilted broccoli, leftover cooked rice as hard as gravel, a small piece of salmon that is slowly changing color, the things in the cheese drawer that may once have been cheese but are now wildly colorful fuzzy art.

So, the romaine lettuce, seemingly going through some form of biogenesis, was irresistible to her. Ever since then, we have a kitchen windowsill devoted to the ongoing harvest of little romaine lettuce clumps. It’s impressive.

I don’t get it, really. How can it grow like that without being planted in soil? Without any added nutrients in the water?? This isn’t what I learned in 5th grade science class!

But grow it does. Not a big, full head like the ones at Whole Foods, but absolutely, unmistakably, romaine. Imagine my surprise when, doing my daily, hourly New York Times reading, I saw an article about… wait… the regeneration of scallions! And that this is now a microtrend!!

There are undoubtedly many sure and certain explanations for the growth of scallion roots and romaine lettuce from a bowl of water  – not to mention, the apparent success of growing several other vegetables, like celery, fennel, and lemongrass. I know: chlorophyll, water, hydrogen/carbon dioxide exchange… and so forth. I’ve read about hydroponics…

But my theory is more spiritually-based, expressed first in Jurassic Park – the original, released in 1993. Jeff Goldblum, the actor who is always simultaneously cool AND a nerd, speaks one of the most famous movie lines of all time. He says, “Life, uh, finds a way.”

He means that, against all odds, we persevere. He means that there is some transcendent force – I call it God; Dr. Malcolm may mean it as simply the way DNA pushes ALL life forms to never surrender. But where it comes from is not as important as acknowledging that it exists. And it does.

Life finds a way. Read about the siege of Stalingrad, the American Civil War, the Spanish Flu outbreak, migrants walking on foot across swamps or deserts or mine fields. Despite every reason to the contrary, people put their heads down and walk right into the storm. Because that’s where freedom is. That’s where fellowship is. That’s where safety is. Life finds a way.

We’re living in a time haunted by the Angel of Death. Some of us go about our now circumscribed lives the best we can. We wave to others, we move through restricted spaces carefully, with respect for the way this virus spreads. But we venture out!

But then there are those who are utterly terrified, who see the spectre of the Angel of Death close by. Like the woman I saw yesterday who sat waiting in her idling car, her window open. As I approached from well over ten feet, she rolled her window up. That’s fear.

Yes, I know. The Angel of Death is a terrifying presence. It’s easy to bear down on the fear, to see everything as evidence of imminent demise. I have a newfound respect for the Angel of Death.

But when the terror grows so great, when everyone outside your quarantine circle is nothing more than a potential threat, then this world is only a grim anteroom to the grave. The shadow of the Grim Reaper snuffs out everything that is affirming, everything that creates beauty and light.

Yes, wear a mask when you go into the store, when you crowd along the trails or the beach. Wear gloves when they tell you to. Respect the Angel of Death. It’s a real force. But don’t forget. There is something even stronger than death.

Life will always find a way.