fight for 15

I gave this d’var Torah at Nehar Shalom Community Synagogue on November 13, 2015.

On Tuesday afternoon, I skipped my halakha class in order to attend a “Fight for 15” rally downtown. This local effort was part of a nationwide day of action, a “March for Racial and Economic Justice,” aimed at increasing the minimum wage in our state to $15/hour. Outside of Faneuil Hall, we listened to a dozen plus speakers, and then we marched with our signs about a quarter of a mile to the state house, where we heard from state Sen. Dan Wolf about a bill that would mandate a $15/hour wage for fast food and big box store employees. The bill has moved out of committee and now heads to the full Senate. If implemented, the policy would effect more than 200,000 workers in the state, many of whom now make less than $10/hour.

My friend and classmate Ben and I at the "Fight for 15" rally in downtown Boston. photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

my friend and classmate ben and i at the “fight for 15” rally in downtown boston; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

I learned about the event through an organizing class that I’m taking this semester: The local group JOIN for Justice is pioneering an online course called “Don’t Kvetch! Organize!” The class has participants from all over the country. At the rally I met up with several of my Boston-area classmates, as well as a few JOIN staff members. The action was meant to be a way to put into practice, or at least witness, some of what we’ve learned so far.

The speakers at the rally represented a wide variety of workers: All people of color — and more than a few undocumented immigrants — they included students, home health care workers, fast food employees, adjunct college professors, and child care providers. One woman spoke about her eldest daughter, the first in the family to get into college — and then told of her sadness at the family’s not being able to afford that college. A fast food employee testified that he was striking that day — for the 11th time in three years — for $15/hour and the right to unionize at the McDonald’s where he works. The adjunct compared her insufficient full-time salary, and the paltry wages of the university’s staff, to that of her college president, who makes $3 million/year. They had in common long hours, exhausting work, job insecurity, lack of benefits, and painful choices around spending because of their paltry compensation.

I am proud to report the robust Jewish presence at the rally. Besides the JOIN students and staff, also represented were the New England Jewish Labor Committee, the Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action, Moishe Kavod House, and the Boston Workmen’s Circle, plus just some individual, good old fashioned Jewish activists — some of whom are part our community here in JP and at Nehar Shalom. And this is just here in Boston: All over our country, from L.A. to Chicago to Miami, on Tuesday Jews marched for racial and economic justice.

This demonstration of our commitment to justice as Jews got me started thinking about the Jewish values that underpin that commitment. I’ve learned — and will teach as a rabbi — lots of texts that speak directly to those values and that commitment. But this week, as I learned part of our parshah to chant tomorrow morning, I wondered about workers’ issues in relation to Toledot.

This week’s parshah, as so many in Genesis, is filled with the continuing family drama of the Abrahamic line. Rivka gives birth to twins Esav and Ya’akov, who spend their lives at odds with each other, starting in utero. The tension between them, the text explains, stems from their differences.

Esav is a character derided by the Jewish tradition. Depicted as a brute, unintelligent, and powerful man of the field, Esav is often seen as the opposite of the rabbinic ideal of his brother Ya’akov. Rashi even sees a religious difference between them: He claims that at bar mitzvah age, Ya’akov went to yeshiva, and Esav turned to idol worship. But before being swindled out of his birthright over a bowl of lentil stew, Esav comes home from working in the field all day. The Torah makes a point of noting that he was עָיֵ֖ף, “tired.” Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik explains the significance of this verse: “Esau came tired from all his accomplishments and all his conquests. He was exhausted and disappointed . . . [And so the verse says], Esau came from the field and he was tired . . . Focused solely on physical success, Esau finished his day existentially exhausted: unfulfilled, demoralized, and disappointed.”

Before I explore this further, I want to note that this interpretation of Ya’akov and Esav is uniquely Jewish. Growing up a Protestant, I learned the story of the warring twin sons of Yitzhak quite differently: I was taught to strive to be like Esav, not Ya’akov, who in my tradition was regarded with great suspicion because of his dishonesty. The difference in Jewish and Christian traditions in their interpretations of this story continues to be one of my most surprising experiences as a convert.

emily and helen, with signs from interfath worker justice, at "fight for 15" rally in downtown boston; photo by salem pearce

emily and helen, with signs from interfaith worker justice, at the “fight for 15” rally in downtown boston; photo by salem pearce

As a Christian I learned to valorize Esav’s unvarnished physicality, and I saw a bit of this value in the clergy invocation offered at the beginning of the rally on Tuesday. The Christian pastor prayed for workers’ continued mobility and physical stamina, that with Gd’s help they might have the strength to get up each day and run, and that we at the march might continue the walk to justice. I have to say — as a future rabbi who hopes someday to be asked to give an invocation at the beginning of a rally — I was disappointed at the ableist language that he used. And yet asking Gd for vigor wasn’t totally out of place. It’s physically draining to be a fast food worker, or a child care provider, or a home health aide in way that it’s just not to be, say, a rabbinical student. The pastor recognized that and prayed for the need he saw in the workers at the rally. To bring the metaphor back to our parshah, he identified them with Esav.

As I mentioned earlier, tomorrow morning I’ll be chanting Torah here, and since we’re in the third year of the triennial cycle of Torah reading, we’ll be looking at the end of parshat Toledot. As I practiced the leyning, I found myself quite moved by Esav’s distress at the discovery Ya’akov’s deception of their father Yitzchak. Incredulous, he wails, “Have you but one blessing, my father? Bless me too, my father!” And then וַיִּשָּׂ֥א עֵשָׂ֛ו קֹל֖וֹ וַיֵּֽבְךְּ: “Esav raised his voice and wept.” We’re also told that he cried a great and bitter cry, וַיִּצְעַ֣ק צְעָקָ֔ה גְּדֹלָ֥ה וּמָרָ֖ה. Much of this vocabulary will later appear at the beginning of the book of Exodus, when the pain of the Israelites reaches Gd’s ears. It’s hard not to see some anticipation of the slavery in Egypt in Esav’s reaction. So even though traditional commentators have been quite harsh with Esav, I see points of strong poignancy in the text with regard to him.

What I hope for us is that seeing the story of Esav through the lens of the struggles today of hourly workers might engender some understanding — and maybe even some righteous indignation — about the situation of both. The vitriol that I see directed at Esav by traditional sources is quite troublesome to me: He is almost universally condemned as wicked, a adulterer, and a despiser of Gd — predicted to be — and later accused of being — a murderer. I see in the rabbis’ attitudes toward Esav a parallel to some of the unflattering narratives that our society creates around the working poor.

But I think the Torah actually creates sympathy for Esav’s plight by comparing his pain to that of the later, enslaved Israelites. And like many workers today, Esav is completely depleted by his work. Like many workers today, Esav suffers because of others’ perception of scarce resources. Like many workers today, Esav is forced into painful tradeoffs for basic necessities. We can and should feel compassion for people in these situations. The jobs that the workers at the rally describe are generally not ones that we do want or would want for ourselves and our loved ones.

I marched on Tuesday because I believe that low pay is not worthy of the dignity of human beings. I see the racism that underpins the fact that low-paying hourly jobs in service industries are often filled by people of color. It’s not good for our communities when families struggle to make ends meet. And even though as a rabbi I don’t expect to make a comparable hourly wage, I think that our obligation as Jews is to act boldly for the common good — and that our real birthright — available to us all, not just the firstborn or his trickster younger brother — is our commitment to this kind of everyday revolution.

king of salem

I gave this d’var Torah at Nehar Shalom Community Synagogue on October 24, 2015, Shabbat Lech Lecha. I originally wrote it as an assignment for my homiletics class. (If you want citations — not here because this text was for preaching — let me know!)

As a Jew and as a rabbi-to-be, I believe one of my main goals, both personal and professional, is to make meaning of Torah today — to ask, how is this relevant to my life and the lives of others? Put another way, my job is to find myself — and to find us — in Torah.

There are times when this job is harder than others, as in parshat Nasso, when we read the deeply misogynistic text of the Sotah, or on Yom Kippur, when we read laws of purity that have been distorted to justify homophobia.

And there are times when it’s just handed to me on a silver platter, as in this week’s parshah, Lech Lecha, with the appearance of King Malchitzedek of Salem.

This little known figure shows up in our text shortly after Avram and Lot split ways: Uncle and nephew decide to go in opposite directions to avoid competing for resources in the land of Canaan. But soon after, they are reunited, when Avram rescues Lot and his family, taken as prisoners of war in an puzzling episode known as “the battle of the kings.”

This short incident in Genesis 14 has only a tenuous connection to the previous narrative of Avram’s wanderings. Indeed, this chapter has often been noted as unique. It associates the patriarch Avram — not yet Avraham — with pseudo-historical events and presents him as a shrewd and revered military leader, a role unattested for him elsewhere in Torah. The story is of four kings who wage war against five others; after Avram’s successful campaign to recover Lot and his family, he declines the proffer of the defeated king of Sodom.

But the visit of the king of Sodom is interrupted by a brief interlude. He comes out to greet Avram, but the rest of their interaction is postponed by the interpolation of three short verses (Gen. 14:18-20) — about yet a tenth king not mentioned as part of any of the preceding battles.

.וּמַלְכִּי-צֶדֶק מֶלֶךְ שָׁלֵם, הוֹצִיא לֶחֶם וָיָיִן; וְהוּא כֹהֵן, לְאֵל עֶלְיוֹן
And Malchitzedek, king of Salem, brought forth bread and wine; and he was a priest of God the Most High.

.וַיְבָרְכֵהוּ, וַיֹּאמַר:  בָּרוּךְ אַבְרָם לְאֵל עֶלְיוֹן, קֹנֵה שָׁמַיִם וָאָרֶץ
And he blessed [Avram], and said: “Blessed be Avram of God Most High, Maker of heaven and earth.”

.בָרוּךְ אֵל עֶלְיוֹן, אֲשֶׁר-מִגֵּן צָרֶיךָ בְּיָדֶךָ; וַיִּתֶּן-לוֹ מַעֲשֵׂר מִכֹּל
“And blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your foes into your hand.” And [Avram] gave him a tenth of everything.

Only then, after these three verses, does the narrative of King Sodom resume.

Malchitzedek as priest -- with Abel and lamb and Abraham and Isaac. Mosaic at Basilica of St. Vitale in Ravenna, Italy.

Malchitzedek as priest — with Abel and lamb and Abraham and Isaac. Mosaic at Basilica of St. Vitale in Ravenna, Italy.

King Malchitzedek appears out of nowhere, both textually and contextually. I’ve long been interested in this mysterious figure, most obviously for his provenance. Most translations, including the JPS that I just quoted, render מֶלֶךְ שָׁלֵם as “king of Salem.” As you might expect, “Salem” is understood as a name for Jerusalem.

Underscoring the peculiarity of the Malchitzedek story is the fact that the verse in Genesis is the only place in Torah to refer to Jerusalem by name. No other patriarch is connected with Jerusalem. We are told of many places where Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob build altars — “but,” says one Biblical scholar, “there is no association with the one place that was later to monopolize the Judean cult.” As central as Jerusalem becomes in the development of Judaism, the city as such has almost no role in Torah.

As it turns out, it is the invocation of this king in Christian scripture that is the source of my name. In the book of Hebrews, Jesus is repeatedly compared to Malchitzedek. A verse explains, “His name, in the first place, means ‘king of righteousness’; next he is the king of Salem, that is, ‘the king of peace’” (Heb. 7:2). This inspired my parents, and they hoped for a peaceful child, my mom says. As a regular confounder of expectations, I am not sure that is always what I have given her.

And lest you doubt that the universe has a sense of irony, it is pointed out in the Jewish Annotated New Testament that the Letter to the Hebrews, the source of my name, has the dubious distinction of “the New Testament’s most anti-Jewish text.”

Beside the fact of him as my namesake, I’ve also been drawn to Malchitzedek for another reason. As a convert, I sometimes struggle with the idea of Jewish ancestry. Officially I am Rachel Tzippora bat Avraham v’Sarah — but neither of those two of our ancestors particularly resonates with me. When I say the amidah, I include Bilhah and Zilpah — the handmaidens of Rachel and Leah, respectively, and the mothers of four of the later tribes of Israel — because often feel that I relate more to women not native to the Abrahamic line. Though Malchitzedek does not explicitly express belief in Avram’s monotheism, tradition identifies him as a priest of the Hebrew Gd — making him, in Nahum Sarna’s words, “an example of the biblical idea of individual non-Hebrews who acknowledge the one God. Such a one was Jethro; another, Balaam; a third, Job. Melchizedek thus belongs to this category.” In this way, he is sort of proto-convert. One commentator even declares unequivocally that he is Avram’s convert.

A mentor once suggested, as I worked on framing my Jewish journey for a “story of self” for activist work, that Malchitzedek might be a source of inspiration and identification. And so I wondered, is there more than etymology and provenance to recommend this “king of righteousness, king of Salem” to me? Who is this strange figure? What does the Torah mean by including such a singular character in the Abrahamic cycle?

Malchitzedek really comes to life only in rabbinic and later literature, where he is almost universally identified as Shem, one of the sons of Noah. We know almost nothing about him from Tanakh. Besides the passage in Genesis, Malchitzedek only mentioned elsewhere in Psalm 110 (v. 4), where Gd is said to swear:

אַתָּה-כֹהֵן לְעוֹלָם עַל-דִּבְרָתִי מַלְכִּי-צֶדֶק
“You are a priest forever, in the order of Malchitzedek.”

This psalm refers to a royal priesthood: Noting that this hymn has the epigraph לְדָוִד מִזְמוֹר, “a psalm of David,” the rabbis explain that the Shem/Malchitzedek character was a progenitor of the Davidic monarchy, which descended from Judah and Tamar, a daughter (or sometimes granddaughter) of Shem. Also in the line of David? Ruth, the Tanakh’s most famous convert. This convert king, whose convert descendant was the great-grandmother of דָוִד המֶּלֶך, might indeed be a good ancestor for me.

Interestingly, the Christian tradition understands this verse from Psalm 110 as an allusion to Jesus, with its references to the offices of king and priest in one man. All the more reason to recommend him to my Christian parents!

Indeed, in many early Christian traditions, Malchitzedek is Jesus. In one Gnostic text, the king lives, preaches, dies, and is resurrected. The book of Hebrews makes essentially the same point, focusing on the divinity of Jesus, when it claims that Malchitzedek is “without father, without mother, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of Gd . . .” (Heb. 7:3).

Jewish tradition gets similarly carried away: In various sources, Malchitzedek is the son of a virgin who is already dead at the time of his birth; the teacher of Torah to the patriarchs before it was given at Sinai; and is spirited by the archangel Gabriel to Gan Eden to escape Noah’s flood. The rich variety of lore that arose around this enigmatic character speaks to how compelling those three short verses in Lech Lecha have been through the ages and through traditions.

These interpretations are indeed fascinating — and they actually go on and on and on — but I think meaning for us may first be found simply in the placement of the Malchitzedek incident, obviously interposed into the interaction of the King of Sodom with Avram. Abarbanel claims that, in doing so, the text is trying to show the striking contrast between the behavior of the king of Sodom and the king of Salem. Drawing on conventions of war, the Or HaHayyim explains further:

The interpolation regarding Malchitzedek is introduced to reflect credit on the righteous and show the difference between them and the wicked. The king of Sodom went forth to welcome Avraham empty-handed, though he was under obligation to repay him generously. The wicked went empty-handed, whereas Malchitzedek the righteous, with no obligation, behaved generously and welcomed him with bread and wine.

This understanding has much to recommend it: That the king of Sodom acts inhospitably foreshadows the destruction of the city of Sodom a few chapters later.

Though both of these commentators focus on what the incident suggests about the king of Sodom, I am interested in what the incident suggests about the king of Salem: What we do know about Malchitzedek from Torah is that he lives up to his name as a righteous man. Without prelude or pretext, Malchitzedek offers Avram a meal and blesses him — and then blesses their shared Gd, as creator of heaven and earth. Simply and humbly, Malchitzedek honors Avram.

The Yalkut Shimoni draws on the tradition of Malchitzedek as Shem, the son of Noah, to make even more explicit what his interaction with Avram means. The midrash imagines a longer conversation, after the flood:

[Avraham] said to Malchitzedek, “How was it that you [merited] to go out of the ark?”

[Malchitzedek] replied, “Because of the tzedakah that we did there.”

[Avraham] said, “What tzedekah did you do in the ark? Were there poor people there? Isn’t it the case that there was only Noah and his children there? So, for whom did you do tzedakah?”

[Malchitzedek] said, “For the cattle and the animals and the birds. We didn’t sleep for tending to this one or that one.”

Then Avraham said, “Had they not done tzedakah for the cattle and animals and birds, they would not have [merited] to go out of the ark! It was because they did this tzedakah that they went out. If I do so for human beings, who are in the image of Gd, how much more will I [merit]!

And then, we’re told, Avraham acts: Consistent with our understanding of this patriarch as the paradigm of hospitality, he opens an inn for needy travelers, providing them with food, drink, and funeral escort. It’s the king of Salem who first models for Avram this particular act of righteousness, when Malchitzedek acts with unfettered generosity towards a virtual stranger. And, as the midrash teaches us, Avram does the same in turn.

I don’t know that my parents are deep readers of Biblical text: In the church I attended as a child, I was taught that there was always one, literal meaning of any part of scripture. But I can’t believe that King Malchitzedek, King of Salem, King of Righteousness, my namesake, came into my life by accident. This border crosser, this convert, this mysterious figure claimed by both Jewish and Christian tradition, this king of Salem — Malchitzedek is a character that I can see myself in.

This deeper understanding of my name has made me start to think about the markers that our parents set out for us, knowingly and unknowingly. My parents definitely did not anticipate that I would find a spiritual, intellectual, and activist home in Judaism — but in naming me for Malchitzedek, they did bless me with the hope of peace and righteousness. Ultimately, they gave me what I needed to find my own way.

In parshat Lech Lecha, we generally focus on Avram’s call from Gd and his leap of faith.

לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ
“Go forth from your country, and from your birthplace, and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you.”

Avram, we usually say, began his pioneering journey of monotheism, as the first Jew, by literally setting out on a new and unknown path.

But last week, at the very end of parshat Noach, we’re told that it’s actually Terach, Avram’s father, who begins the journey by setting out with his family from אוּר כַּשְׂדִּים. Does Terach know what is in store for Avram? Is Terach helping Avram by initiating the first stage of his wanderings in a new land? We can only guess. Knowingly or unknowingly, like my parents, Terach acts in a way that allows his child to find his own path and identity. Avram develops a relationship with the one Gd and becomes Avraham — and later, Avraham Avinu, the father of us all.

I wonder if Avraham ever realized what Terach had done for him. I like to think he did. I like to think that somewhere along the way Avraham acknowledged that he didn’t actually become who he became through his actions alone. It was Terach, in leaving his home, who first blessed him with the model of fearlessness and faith. I like to think that Avraham spent his life trying to live up to that blessing — as I will strive to do with my parents’ blessing of naming me for King Malchitzedek, King of Righteousness, King of Peace, King of Salem.

it’s not in heaven

I gave this d’var Torah at Nehar Shalom Community Synagogue on Friday, September 11, 2015 (and then again the next morning), on my first Shabbat as the rabbinic intern.

Today is September 11.

Long before that date came to stand for national tragedy, as the twin towers that long stood over the New York skyline crumbled, it was the birthday of my favorite aunt; she long stood as a positive example for me in childhood.

She and my uncle divorced when my cousin, who is close to my age, was very young, and I watched my aunt step bravely into the role of, essentially, single mother to a grade schooler. She took a position as an English teacher at a prestigious college prep school and later became head of the English department. She eventually left as the head of the upper school, to take a position of head of school at another institution.

I recently recommended to my aunt a podcast called “Mystery Show,” which I’ve been enjoying. Each episode, the host solves a different puzzle, and in the most recent one I listened to, she investigates a license plate she saw years before while standing at a red light: It read “I-L-U-V-9-1-1” — “I love 9/11.”

The host is shocked — and then determined to find out the story behind a plate that is probably not owned by a terrorist, as an initial reading might suggest. I won’t give away the ending, but I knew it was something that my aunt would also enjoy.

And the truth is, I love 9/11. September 11 is the anniversary of my conversion. Six years ago, I was standing in the mikveh and made brachot while several rabbis stood nearby as witnesses. I emerged a Jew.

And in a strange turn of events, today is also the day that my divorce becomes official. It’s just a fluke — a combination of court bureaucracy that scheduled the hearing and state law that requires the judgment entered that day to be final some months hence. Last spring, I stood before a judge and averred that my marriage had irretrievably broken down.

This date stands for
The towers stood above
My aunt stood as
The car stood at the light
I was standing in the mikveh
The rabbis stood over me
I stood up in court.

In this week’s parshah, Nitzavim, we stand as the people Israel to enter into the covenant with Gd. אַתֶּם נִצָּבִים, the parshah begins: “You are standing.” And it is most definitely we, the people in this room, who are standing.

The covenant that Gd makes is with those who were there in that moment in the distant Biblical past — but also with us, the people who were not there that day: וְאֵת אֲשֶׁר אֵינֶנּוּ פֹּה עִמָּנוּ הַיּוֹם. And my standing in the mikveh all those years ago affirmed that I, too, stood with all of them and with all of you.

The Torah emphasizes the breadth of the covenant by enumerating a list of the different sorts of people that stood that day to accept the covenant: the leaders of the tribes, the elders, the officers, children, women, the strangers in the camp.

Also mentioned are two other groups: the woodchoppers and the waterdrawers. I love this strange, ordinary detail. We’ve already been told that everyone is there: כֹּל אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל. Why are these two random professions mentioned at the end of the long list of, let’s face it, more distinguished groups of people?

I think it’s because this point really paints a picture of the day: That day, the last day of Moshe’s life, the day that would come to be known as the one on which the people of Israel accepted our covenant with Gd, a woodchopper gets up and begins to go about his day.

He exchanges words of affection with his family. He eats his manna. He talks with his neighbors. He walks to the woodpile. He picks up his axe and begins to swing. And then Moshe summons everyone . . .

כֹּל אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל is abstract. It’s hard to picture. It’s when we’re told just a small, specific detail about one of the people that stood with everyone else that we can begin to see the scene.

So too with the death toll of the attack on the World Trade Center. It can be hard to comprehend the number 3,000. In his review of the 9/11 memorial in New York City, which stands now where the towers once stood, New Yorker critic Adam Gopnik writes about the power of the spontaneous memorials that emerged right after the attack:

“In truth, the simplest memorials of the first days after the disaster, those xeroxed handbills with ‘Missing’ emblazoned on them and the photographs and descriptions of the lost below, still move us more than any other remembrance. ‘MISSING One World Trade Center, 100th Floor, Roger Mark Rasweiler’ ‘We’re looking for Kevin M. Williams, 104th Fl. WTC’ — these signs were made with the foreknowledge that the missing were in truth dead. There’s a wall of them within the museum. They voiced a refusal to accept their passing without protest and insistence: he died here, not some office worker. (Since we take pictures of the ones we love mostly on holiday, some bore apologetic inscriptions: ‘Was not wearing sunglasses on Tuesday.’)

The handbills still move us so because they touch so entirely on a central truth: these people came together one morning with no common purpose beyond making a living, and were killed by people whose evil lay in the belief that without a common purpose life has no meaning. The lesson of these handbills is simple: that life is tragic and precious and fragile, that there is an irreducible core of violence in the world, and of fanatics in love with it, and that we failed once in our responsibility to protect ourselves from them, and from it.”

as beautiful as this cap cod sky is -- the torah is not there; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם הִוא: as beautiful as this cape cod sky is — the torah is not there; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

In parshat Nitzavim, we are given our common purpose as we stand together as a people before Gd: Torah.

I go back to the mikveh each year to commemorate my conversion. I say shehecheyanu, thanking Gd for another year as a Jew. It’s also my tradition to say during these annual visits the blessing over Gd as giver of Torah, Baruch ata Hashem noteyn ha Torah. Torah is what brought me to Judaism and what now sustains my Jewish identity. It is my belief that I have a stake in our sacred book that made me want to be a rabbi.

Indeed, we are given that most wonderful of gifts in parshat Nitzavim, when Gd tells us לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם הִוא — the Torah “is not in heaven.” It continues: כִּי קָרוֹב אֵלֶיךָ הַדָּבָר מְאֹד בְּפִיךָ וּבִלְבָבְךָ לַעֲשׂתוֹ — “Rather, it is very close to you: it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can fulfill it.”

It’s in this last statement that the pronouns change: When we are told that “you are standing,” it’s אַתֶּם, the “you” plural. Y’all. But when we are told that Torah is “in your mouth and in your heart,” it’s “you” singular. In the midst of the crowd of Israelites standing in the desert, Gd gives Torah to each one of us, individually, down to the humble watercarrier and woodchopper.

Parshat Nitzavim reminds us what we have always known: that there is power in standing, just as 9/11 brought home for us the devastating lesson that there is equal power when what once stood falls.

I had to stand before a judge to make the oath dissolving my relationship with my husband — and we all had to stand together to make the oath formalizing our relationship with Gd. These big moments in our life require nothing less than that we rise to meet them. In so doing we indicate our commitment, our intentionality, our seriousness, our authenticity. We stand in order to say: “We know what is at stake.”

Right now, we are all now standing at the gates of repentance. Rosh Hashanah, the new year, begins on Sunday evening. The gates open then, and they close again on Yom Kippur. My blessing for all of us is that we rise to meet Gd, the giver of judgment, just as we rose to meet Gd, the giver of Torah: together, all of us present.

I want for all of us to know that even as we take responsibility for our individual shortcomings and make atonement for our individual mistakes, that we do so as one people, standing before the Gd of the covenant, whose greatest gift to us was accountability on a human, not divine, scale. Gd gave Torah to us, to our mouths, to our hearts. It is not in heaven. It is right here.

prison psych

“I can think of one thing that is worse than being sick and in the prison ward here at the hospital. Being well and at Riker’s.” – CPE supervisor

“The midnight shift here on the prison ward is way better than working during the day at the 23-hour lock-up on the island.” – NYC corrections officer

“I would rather try to kill myself than have to go back to Riker’s.” – prison ward psych patient

Working at the prison psych ward this summer has confirmed for me just how bad Riker’s Island is. And the prison psych ward at Bellevue Hospital, where I am interning this summer as a chaplain, is pretty damn bad.

Almost every day I go through airport-like security to reach the floor. Armed corrections officers abound. Often there are folks in the hideous orange jumpsuits, and in leg chains and handcuffs, and the lucky ones shuffle towards an elevator that will get them to their transportation to court, to Riker’s, upstate to Sing-Sing. The less fortunate are pushed in hospital beds. I wait for one mechanized gate, with its once-white, peeling paint, to slowly slide open. I enter a holding area and wait for it to close. At the end of the hallway, another officer unlocks a door. I enter and wait for her to lock it again. She walks to another white metal gate, with yet another officer sitting on the other side, and opens it. I am finally on one of two prison psych wards.

bellevue hospital gate; photo by salem pearce

bellevue hospital gate; photo by salem pearce

I walk past men — they are all men, and the vast majority men of color — in faded blue scrub tops and gray sweatpants. Milling around the hall. Walking deliberately around the hall, because some days that’s all the exercise they can get. Shouting in the hall. About using the telephone. About getting a clean shirt. About talking to a doctor. About . . . something unintelligible. Sleeping in their rooms. Using the bathrooms that abut the halls with huge picture windows.

There are tons of corrections officers here, too, as many as there are patients. During my first visit to the floor, the chief psychiatrist warns me, “They are not here for your protection.” They sit in chairs, as do staff who are assigned to the patients under “constant watch.” There is a lot of sitting. There is nowhere to go.

I check in at the nurse’s station: Is there any patient I need to avoid today? I walk around the hall — only the main hall; the second hall, ironically with absolutely no corrections officers, is too dangerous — and ask if anyone wants to talk to the chaplain. Sometimes I knock on doors, where there are two to three patients per room. I usually don’t have to walk long to get a taker.

We walk to an interview room. The patient enters first and sits on the opposite side of the table; I am closest to the door. If he is under constant watch, the staff member sits outside. And then the patient and I talk.

Some of them have committed the kinds of crimes that you read about in the Post: Man tries to kill girlfriend and then himself. Man takes [unusual weapon] to co-workers. Man assaults officers on the subway during rush hour. But some of them are simply folks with mental illness whose behavior has been criminalized. Man shouts in an unruly manner on street. Man violates probation. Man pandhandles. And yet others are the result of decompensation in isolation, or not, on Riker’s.

What I have been struck by most is the detail of care afforded patients by the system — and its simultaneous profound inhumaneness.

Several mornings a week I attend a meeting of the unit’s principle staff: psychiatrists, psychiatry interns, social workers, social work interns, nurses, and clerks. The meeting starts with a report from the head night watch clerk. He goes through what happened with each patient the night before in minute detail. Who got what medications, who refused medication, who slept when, who was awake when, who ate what, who was in what mood.

Then they go over new admissions. They discuss discharges (which always means back into some part of the criminal justice system). And then one of the doctors presents presents her patients in detail. She talks about medications, psychological state, progress. The social worker adds information about the criminal case, family, records at Riker’s or other institutions, contact with lawyer. (A different doctor will go the next day.) Then the daily lists are created collaboratively: Who is at what “level” (and therefore has more or fewer privileges); who can get a haircut; who is going to court; who can attend groups. The information is mostly in these professionals’ heads: They are very familiar with their charges. And everyone refers to each as “Mr. So-and-so.”

There are groups: art therapy, music therapy, spirituality, community meetings. I run what’s called a “Healing Circle” once a week. Almost every day there is recreation on the roof. General freedom of movement on the unit. Three meals a day, plus snacks. Several televisions.

And yet.

There are no personal possessions, which is helpful since the patients are (inexplicably, to me) moved almost every day. The lists created include who needs to be forced to shower. The walls echo with clinical phrases like, “irritable upon approach”; “responds to redirection”; “sexually preoccupied”; “displays suicidal ideation”; “exhibits disorganized thinking.” The view of the East River is almost completely obscured behind feet of thick wire screens. There is an almost uniform schedule for their movement through the criminal justice system (“Arraignment on Wednesday means a court date on Monday”). Most of the men can’t tell you why they were arrested, much less how they ended up on a prison psych ward. Very few of them will ever experience life outside of an institution.

Adding to the feeling that these men are utterly lost to us is the fact that they almost all have the most common American names. Johnson, Smith, Brown, Williams. John, Michael, Jeffrey, Kevin. Pick a combination, and they’re probably there.

And then the most crushingly heartbreaking of all: Occasionally there is a patient called simply “Unknown Male.”

We know so much and yet virtually nothing about them.

I don’t doubt the motivations of the staff of the unit. I’ve never heard anyone speak about the men under their care with anything but respect and sympathy (okay, sometimes tinged with frustration, but I think that’s reasonable). But the truth is that this care can only go so far. It inevitably runs up against the fundamental philosophy of a system of mass incarceration: that it is acceptable, even preferable, to put certain human beings in cages. The cages in prison psych encompass the entire unit, instead of individual cells, but that doesn’t make them any less inhumane. And all the pastoral care in the world isn’t going to change that.

standing divorcing at sinai

This year my husband and I split up, an extraordinarily painful process. And because Gd has a (brutal) sense of humor, this past semester I got to take a Lifecycle Seminar class that focused primarily on weddings. This is my final reflection for that class. (I was mercifully excused from having to write a wedding drasha for a ceremony.)

Rabbi Avi Weiss, drawing on a longstanding Jewish tradition of Shavuot as the occasion of the wedding between Gd and Israel, writes:

At Sinai, God and the people of Israel stood at the base of the mountain be-tahtit ha-har (Exodus 19:17). Commenting on the word be-tahtit, the Midrash concludes that we, the Jewish people, were literally standing beneath the mountain — much like bride and groom stand under the huppah, the bridal canopy during the wedding ceremony.

But there’s another, less felicitous, interpretation of the standing be-tahtit ha-har. Rabbi Jill Jacobs writes:

According to the traditional interpretation of this strange biblical locution, God uproots Mount Sinai from the ground and holds it over the people, saying, “If you accept the Torah, fine; if not, here shall be your grave” (Talmud, Tractate Avodah Zarah 2b). The implication seems to be that the Jews accepted Torah only through coercion.

Though not unique in Jewish tradition, for one passage to have such divergent interpretation is not insignificant. What does it mean for a symbol of a wedding to also be understood a sign of duress? These are not the happy thoughts that might typically spring to mind when considering the Jewish marriage ritual, but this Shavuot the Israelites’ committing themselves to Gd has had a particular resonance for me.

I attended my divorce hearing the morning of May 11. Because of unexpected circumstances, my soon-to-be ex-husband was not present. He was represented by his lawyer, who submitted a notarized statement on his behalf. The judge asked me to aver both that “the marriage has irretrievably broken down” and that “there is no chance of reconciliation.” I hesitated for just the slightest second. I know she was looking for just a spoken affirmation of the statements; indeed, the process for our uncontested divorce was highly ritualistic, since we had already submitted a written, notarized separation agreement when we requested a hearing two months earlier.

But it seems to me that those two statements are not actually able to be answered with any kind of certainty. “Irretrievable”? “No chance”? I consider the resuscitation of our relationship highly unlikely, but I can’t know what the future holds. And I felt similarly when we got married. Though I was not asked during the ceremony to affirm any unrealistic statements (such as the traditional Christian vow of “until death do us part”), the specter of “forever” was nonetheless present. Again, even under the huppah I considered the dissolution of our relationship unlikely, but I couldn’t know what the future held.

Both at the beginning and at the end of my marriage I said what I was expected to say. But I wonder if in so doing I was back at Sinai along with all of the other Israelites chanting na’aseh v’nishma (“we will do, and we will understand”) — traditionally interpreted as a sign of our deep commitment to Torah. We are the people who first promise to observe the laws of Torah and only then to study them. We say this before revelation, according to the rabbis, and this is how they the solve the problem of the appearance of coercion that one of those Midrashim creates: We may have been threatened by Gd, but we had already accepted Gd’s conditions.

The nature of this acceptance of Torah speaks to my experience of the institution of marriage. I never felt the weight of the change in my legal status in entering into it as I have in leaving it; it’s been in the dissolution of the relationship have I’ve really understood its weight. Maybe it’s the same with Torah: It’s easy to accept but hard to keep. And the comparison could go even further: Even if the Israelites had decided to understand Torah first, they most likely would have never gotten to the acceptance. They might not have had time — after all, we spend our lives struggling with how Torah speaks to us — or they might have decided against it — after all, we are warned against overwhelming converts with too much Torah.

In the end, revelation and marriage are acts of faith. There are simply no guarantees in entering new relationships, and especially in formalizing them, even when both parties know each other pretty well. Gd and the Israelites had generations of monogamy, to put monotheism in human relational terms, before matan Torah. And many disappointments were to follow it.

This is (perhaps) a dour read of marriage. And I acknowledge that it is informed by where I am right now in relation to my divorce and to the institution of marriage. I doubt that I will be asked to perform an weddings anytime soon — but I couldn’t do it responsibly right now even if I were. I am too cynical about “happily ever after,” and I can’t stand the undimmed excitement of betrothed couples. Maybe my attitude will change radically with time. More likely, I hope I’ll be able to incorporate some of my current views into useful pastoral perspective. I can imagine that it might be helpful for some couples to have marriage taken off the pedestal and put in a more realistic context.

So maybe I am back at Sinai again, saying na’aseh v’nishma. I’m doing the process of healing with the faith that it will lead me to understanding.

forfeiting the right to worship gd

I originally gave a version of this d’var Torah at Nehar Shalom Community Synagogue on January 18, 2015, on the Shabbat of MLK Weekend. It also appeared on jewschool.

“We forfeit the right to worship Gd as long as we continue to humiliate Negros.”

Using the language of his time, so said Abraham Joshua Heschel in a telegram to Pres. John F. Kennedy, just before their meeting. Heschel was talking about the structural racism of the 1960s: He had just met the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King at a conference and was getting more involved in the civil rights movement. With this message, he signaled his desire to move the religious community to take action and make personal sacrifice in solidarity with the black community. “Churches and synagogues have failed. They must repent . . .The hour calls for high moral grandeur and spirituality audacity.”

Heschel was a poet as well as a rabbi and a scholar, and even though — or maybe because — his medium was a telegram, I know he chose his words carefully when he made this radical statement.

On the one hand, “forfeit” can have an active connotation of relinquishing, or letting go. In this sense, “forfeiting” means you surrender a claim: When you plead guilty to a crime, you forfeit trial by jury.

On the other hand, “forfeit” can have a more passive connotation, of something being taken. In this sense, you are deprived without your assent: When you are convicted of a crime, you forfeit your freedom.

I think Heschel wanted to say both. Moral action is a prerequisite to relationship with Gd. For Heschel, racism means that we are saying no to Gd. And it also means that Gd is saying no to us.

Parshat Vaera, which we just read, is dominated by the story of the many plagues on Egypt and the grand confrontation between Gd and Pharaoh. It’s easy to overlook that what sets the stage for the high drama is actually the Israelites. Gd promises to Moshe the people’s liberation and its inheritance of land, but when Moshe tells the Israelites of the promise, he is rebuffed (Exodus 6:9):

.וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה כֵּן, אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל; וְלֹא שָׁמְעוּ, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ וּמֵעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה

This is usually translated as something like: “And Moses said so to the children of Israel, and they did not listen to Moses, from anguish of spirit and from cruel oppression.”

מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ וּמֵעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה

Literally, מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ, translated above as “anguish of spirit”, means “shortness of breath.” It’s the only such occurrence of the phrase in Tanakh. Everett Fox renders it “shortness of spirit.” Ramban wants to suggest that that the Israelites were “impatient” for their salvation. It is no doubt hard to hear a promise of redemption while waiting for freedom. We can hardly look to the future while we’re focused on the present.

מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ, וּמֵעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה: What we learn is the Israelites were weary in soul and body. But it’s the spiritual bondage מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ that is forefronted. It is the principle problem.

Alternatively, we can understand רוּחַ – spirit, breath — as the divine, as in the primordial force of creation, the רוּחַ אֱלֹהִים/spirit of God that hovered over the chaotic universe (Genesis 1:2).

So the Torah then is making a very specific theological statement here: Gd is in short supply. Gd is as limited a resource as the straw that the Israelites no longer have to make the bricks that they are still expected to produce. That in fact the Israelites are cut off from Gd.

In the Exodus story, it’s a given that Pharaoh and the Egyptians aren’t in relationship with Gd. Indeed, Gd says on more than one occasion that what is happening is so that Egypt will know that Gd is Gd. But it turns out that the Israelites are in no better of a state.

מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ: The Israelites are cut off from Gd. The Israelites have forfeited their relationship with Gd.

Both King and Heschel would appreciate the coincidence of this parshah and this holiday. They both saw the Israelites’ liberation from Egypt as powerful metaphor for the civil rights struggle. Sometimes we celebrate this holiday as if the work is done. We like to think that we abolished slavery in this country in 1863. But we didn’t. We just recreated it in new form, with Jim Crow laws that established systemic segregation in public resources. And we like to think that we struck down Jim Crow in this country in 1965. But we didn’t. We just recreated it in new form, with a criminal justice system that functions to enact racialized social control.

Since the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012, there has been a call in this country for recognition of the fact that black lives matter. The killings of Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and the nearly 1,000 other black people since then have only intensified the call for an end to the state violence that seeks to control black bodies and souls.

This summer I worked at an organization that was part of several coalitions working to end the use of solitary confinement in New York jails and prisons. As if our penal institutions aren’t bad enough. We put human beings in cages. And then within those cages, we put those human beings into other, smaller cages.

I had the privilege this summer of working with two formerly incarcerated men who spent time in solitary confinement. They survived, and and they now spend their days trying to make sure no one else has to. The other, who was a teenager behind bars: “I felt isolated, sad, helpless. I remember crying a lot. When I was 16, I couldn’t identify these emotions a lot of times. My default emotion was anger, which led to aggressive behavior like lashing out, overcompensating, and violence. Prison itself, not just solitary confinement, is an attack on your soul.”

We, they, the free, the incarcerated, the criminals, the police, the oppressors, the oppressed, the Israelites, the Egyptians, everyone. We are all “cut off from Gd.” We have forfeited the right to worship Gd.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we hold in state control — behind bars, on probation, or on parole — seven million Americans, or one in every 31 adults today.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we disproportionately incarcerate black folks, when 13% of the population constitutes 40% of people behind bars.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we kill a black person every 28 hours.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we fail to hold accountable a man who kills a teenage boy walking home from the grocery store with Skittles and iced tea in his hoodie.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we sentence a black woman to 20 years for availing herself of the same Stand Your Ground laws that excused the killer of that teenage boy.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we leave a black man’s body in the street for 4.5 hours after we kill him.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we can offer black transgender women an average life expectancy of only 35 years.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we fatally shoot a 12-year-old black kid with a BB gun in a park seconds after spotting him.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we text a union representative after a police shooting instead of calling an ambulance.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we impose mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses that require a 24-year-old to spend life in prison for three marijuana sales, a decision that the sentencing judge calls “unjust, cruel, and even irrational.”

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we have been so derelict in indigent defense that our American Bar Association says, “The fundamental right to a lawyer that Americans assume applies to everyone accused of criminal conduct effectively does not exist in practice for countless people across the United States.”

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we hide behind a slogan of “tough on crime” a system that can only be described as a tool to maintain white supremacy.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when, for selling loose cigarettes, we strangulate a black man on the street, his last words, “I can’t breathe.” Eric Garner was מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ.

When we can’t breathe, we forfeit the right to worship Gd.

Every year on this Shabbat, we talk about Heschel and King. We tell how Heschel marched with King in Selma. We show the picture of the wild haired, bearded rabbi linking arms with the cooly quaffed reverend, the whole group festooned with leis. And we reflect on Heschel’s words: “When I marched in Selma, my feet were praying.”

Heschel is our way into the work that King did. We can celebrate the extraordinary impact that King had on this country because we were part of it. Heschel’s commitment to King’s work is illustrative of the Jewish community’s solidarity with people of color.

We’ve got to stop telling that story. That was half a century ago. If after 50 years, we don’t have anything else, we’ve forfeited the right to tell that story.

I think we may have something else. I see it in the arrests of Jews on New York’s Upper West Side last month in response to a call to action by communities of color with whom Jewish racial justice organizations are in relationship. I see it in the active participation by young Jews last month in a meeting in Boston’s Jamaica Plain for white racial justice organizers, following black leadership. I see it in the Chanukah action organized last month by the Boston Jewish community, which many in my community attended. I see it in the fact that you are reading this now.

Today, I want us to begin a new story, a story of how we recognized this moment in history for what it is, and we could not be silent, and we could not be still; a story in which we bore witness to the degradation and violence that we sanction every day; a story in which we acknowledged that until we are right with each other, we cannot be right with Gd.

I want us to tell that story to our children.

short in stature, outsize in personality

i started trying to walk in my grandmother's steps at an early age; photo by gay lee pearce

i started trying to walk in my grandmother’s steps at an early age; photo by gay lee pearce

My grandmother died this summer.

She was 96 and had lived on her own until age 92, when she suffered a stroke on the same day as her identical twin sister, who was living 800 miles and three states away (and who sadly passed away just a few days later). Because of the selflessness of my aunt and uncle, the last four years of her life she was able to continue to live in her home of 30 years, in Austin, Texas — cared for by the two of them and two wonderful home aides.

Gay Barr Wilkes had a full life and passed away surrounded by people who loved her. Her death is the kind we probably all aspire to; it’s certainly not a tragedy. But it’s still hard. In some ways I lost the Granny Gay I knew my whole life on the day of the stroke that reduced her so much. But I could still hug her and talk to her, and even though she didn’t say my name anymore, I knew that she knew who I was. And I knew that she loved me as much as she always had.

My mom is struggling with mourning both her mom who was and the one who she became in those last years. I am struggling with feeling so far away from my family the vast majority of the time that the force of this important event seems to have only struck a glancing blow. Did I really say goodbye to Granny Gay when I moved 2,000 miles away? I couldn’t make it to say a final goodbye in person, when her body began to shut down and we knew the end was near, but I was incredibly privileged to be able to organize a final farewell — because my family let me design her memorial service.

In the conversations my aunt and I had in the weeks leading up her my grandmother’s death, I asked about plans for the memorial service. I am, after all, training to be clergy: I think about the rituals of life transitions all the time. My grandmother was a woman of faith more than of religion, and since the Methodist minister of the church that she and my grandfather would on occasion attend had since moved on, my aunt wasn’t left with a meaningful choice for an officiant. (Ever the planners, my grandparents had long ago purchased a package with a local funeral home — meaning that the location and other arrangements had long since been finalized.) With many deaths, a non-family clergy member is needed, or just wanted, to hold the space for mourners. My family wasn’t wracked with grief, though; more than that, I wanted to lead the service. It’s something I knew I could do, and do well, for my family. And my aunt was trusting enough to turn it over to me.

a note from my grandmother, in her familiar handwriting, about the picture of us (above) that won a Mother's Day photo contest in the Houston Post; photo by salem pearce via instagram

a note from my grandmother, in her familiar handwriting, about the picture of us (above) that won a Mother’s Day photo contest in the Houston Post; photo by salem pearce via instagram

Everyone got a part — daughters, sons-in-law, nephews, grandchildren. I was in awe of how eloquent they all were in sharing different parts of her life and talking about what she meant to them. I lost it when her oldest grandson, my cousin Seth, started crying when he spoke about Granny.

He had lived with her and Papa as when he finally finished his undergraduate degree almost 10 years after high school. Discouraged by his slow progress, he complained to her that he would be 27 by the time he finished at the University of Texas at Austin. Her response is a piece of advice I’ve turned to many a time during my winding journey to where I am today. “You’re going to be 27 anyway.” Time passes by regardless, she had reason to know, so you might as well do what you want to do.

Seth also provided an important antidote to the rhapsody that inevitably occurs at funerals. He talked about a time when she was wrong, admitted it, and changed her behavior. Of course, that ultimately makes her even more worthy of praise.

I lived in Austin for five years, from 1997 to 2002, the only of her children and grandchildren there at that time. I got to spend lots of time with her and my grandfather, precious time of eating dinner, doing laundry, and studying at their house. I am thankful that I was smart enough to recognize it even then for the gift that it was. After college I moved to Raleigh, then to D.C., and finally to Boston, my trip up the Atlantic coast taking me farther and farther away from her. I don’t know how much of my new path to rabbinical school she ever understood (and I mean that literally, as she had already begun deteriorating from the stroke when I went back to school), but I am sure she was proud of me to the end.

When I was very young, she told me, “Salem you can be whatever you want to be.” As a child I later slightly reinterpreted her words when my mother announced it was time for bed: “Nope! Granny said I can do whatever I want to do.”

I’ll be almost 40 be the time I’m ordained as rabbi, but I’ll be almost 40 (bs”d) anyway. And I’ll be what I want to be.

guide my steps

I’m a mikveh guide!

Or as my friend Sarah likes to say: I’m a mivkeh lady!

This is not new information; in fact, I completed my training at Mayyim Hayyim at the beginning of May. But since I’ve hardly written in this space since the beginning of the year, I thought I would start to do some catching up.

mayyim hayyim nametag

it’s official!; photo by salem pearce via instagram

In the spring I participated in an eight-week course for new mikveh guides. The group was mostly middle-aged women, save one man, as well as Sarah and I and two other students. We were the ninth cohort of mikveh attendants trained since Mayyim Hayyim opened its doors 10 years ago. The training consisted of history and law of mikveh, most of which I already knew, logistics of facilitating immersions, and general education about the different reasons people might immerse. Mayyim Hayyim is a community mikveh that allows all Jews to immerse for just about any occasion, which makes it unique among most mikva’ot. Folks come to celebrate conversion, marriage, childbirth, gender transition, and cancer remission — as well as to heal from divorce, miscarriage, and sexual abuse, to name a few.

I have written about mikveh in general before in this space. I shared my last two pre-High Holiday immersion experiences, in the fall of 2012 and in the fall of 2013 (both at Mayyim Hayyim) as well as at least a little about my conversion immersion. I also wrote about a powerful play about mikveh I saw at the DCJCC a number of years ago.

As you might imagine, my experiences as an immersee have been quite moving. I was a little nervous about how it would feel to be on the other side, to witness immersions, and indeed, the curtain has been pulled back a little. I can still see the magic of Mayyim Hayyim, especially through the eyes of those who visit, but it’s hard to view as a refuge a place where I’m asked to do laundry. (Keeping the machines cleaning the constant accumulation of sheets and towels and robes and bath mats and wash cloths is part of my job now.) I was able to do my annual pre-holiday dunk last month, but I’ll admit that it felt less special than it had in years past. I did have a really wonderful experience facilitating the immersion of a friend who was preparing for a big life event, and I hope to be able to talk about that in this space soon.

park slope mikvah towel

embroidery on the towels at the park slope mikvah; photo by salem pearce via instagram

What I do want to share is my experience this summer in New York. I did a fair amount of reflection on the ritual of mikveh this summer for a number of reasons — one of which is that my friend Sarah facilitated a series of salon conversations about the practice of niddah as part of her work as a summer fellow with ImmerseNYC, another community mikveh.

Niddah is the term in Hebrew for a menstruating woman, with whom intercourse is forbidden; the metaphorical impurity of menstruation is expunged by immersion in the mikveh some days after the end of her cycle. It’s an ancient practice — still held by many Orthodox communities — most definitely informed by misogyny. However, there is a movement in more liberal Jewish circles to reclaim the practice. Though at first skeptical, I’ve come to believe more in that possibility.

So this summer I twice immersed at the Park Slope Mikvah, which I discovered by accident on a walk around my adopted neighborhood. I scheduled the appointments around my menstrual cycle, but mostly out of respect for the space, which caters to women who practice niddah. I was more interested in exploring a regular practice of mivkeh — and in experiencing a different mikveh.

With all due respect to Mayyim Hayyim, the Park Slope Mikvah is unparalleled in its facilities. It’s brand new (open for less than a year), and it feels like a spa: Beautifully appointed rooms with music and candles and huge bathtubs; embroidered, fluffy white towels, robes, and slippers; gorgeous, shimmering pools; and supplies in a gift-wrapped box, complete with preparation instructions on Park Slope Mikvah stationery. Even more welcoming than all of these creature comforts were the two mikveh ladies that witnessed my immersion.

The mikveh in Park Slope is a project of Chabad, an Orthodox Jewish outreach organization. So the folks associated with it are by profession welcoming. But I don’t present as a typical woman who practices niddah, and the guides still could not have been more kind and helpful. One mikveh lady in particular was effusive in her blessings. And the names of the preparation rooms reflected this expansive feeling: I prepared both times in the hilariously dubbed “Chamber of Chic Simplicity.”

park slope mikvah handwashing sink

park slope mikvah handwashing sink; photo by salem pearce

I don’t know how I would feel about restricting intimate contact with my partner for about half of each month, which is the traditional practice of niddah, but this summer I was struck by the effort it takes to go to the mikveh each month (and I only went two months in a row), and by the appeal that I’m guessing that visit has for many a busy woman. Having the time to take a bath — and being expected to take that time in careful preparation for immersion — seemed even to me, without children or partner, to be a decadent luxury. During my training this spring one of the instructors pointed out that for some women, the time they spend at the mikveh is the only time they will truly have to themselves all month. I feel like I understand the appeal of the mikveh a little more now.

To be sure, the heterocentric focus of the mikveh in Park Slope is procreation. Hence, for instance, the plaque above the ritual handwashing sink:

The unique eggshell shape of this vessel sink in both sculptured and inspirational . . . Just as an egg opens to reveal new life, the mikvah waters breathe new life into our most meaningful relationship. The mikvah has always been — and continues to be — a place of spiritual rebirth and renewal. a mitzvah that celebrates Jewish marriage and family.

As heavy-handed as it’s possible to read this — along with the meditation prayer for fertility that I was handed to read after immersion — I think the fact that the mikveh is clearly engaging in literal hiddur mitzvah (“beautification of the mitzvah”) speaks to the potential power of the use of the ritual for any reason.

One final note: As of this writing on 10/14/14, the D.C. Jewish community (of which I was once a part) is reeling from the news of the recent arrest of Kesher Israel Rabbi Barry Freundel on charges of voyeurism — specifically that there was he installed a hidden camera in the showers of the synagogue’s mikveh. While assuming Rabbi Freundel’s innocence until proven otherwise, I mention this as a way of understanding the vulnerability and intimacy inherent in this ritual.

10/15/14 update: Read Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg’s beautiful response to these allegations here.

the world is on fire

I lost it this morning while chanting Torah.

I volunteered to read the weekday portion, Emor, at the beginning of the semester, not realizing that this reading would coincide with Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day.

On Monday and Thursday mornings, we read the first 10 to 20 verses of the weekly portion. Parshat Emor begins with special laws for priests and for the high priest in their temple service, specifically around ritual impurity. Midway through the reading, a verse states:

“When the daughter of priest defiles herself through harlotry, it is her father she defiles: she shall be burnt in the fire.”

sunset (the daily burning of the world); photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

sunset (the daily burning of the world); photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

As repugnant as it is on any day to read a sacred text, with all the pomp and circumstance of a formal liturgical event, about burning a woman to death, it is unconscionable on a day when we remember the Holocaust. I started crying, and I had a hard time stopping.

I was a little embarrassed, especially since at least one person at the Torah with me didn’t understand what was going on. I think the majority of folks got it, though. (There’s also the complicated relationship that I have to the Holocaust as a convert, as well as my anxiety how others perceive my relationship to the Holocaust as a convert — but that’s another story.)

Mostly, though, I don’t know what to do with the fact that we’re told to do something to one of us that will later be a part of the mass extermination of us by others. It’s almost as if the Torah presages the Holocaust.

Complicating the day further is the fact that on Mondays I take a class on the liturgy of the Yamim Nora’im, the High Holidays. The traditional understanding of these services is really hard to stomach in conjunction with the Holocaust. On Yom Kippur in particular we confess our sins and declare our hope for G-d’s forgiveness. On Yom HaShoah, it’s hard not to think that G-d owes us.

My professor acknowledged this difficulty when he began the class by citing Yitz Greenberg: No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children.

I would add, or a burning woman.

the light gets in

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in. (Leonard Cohen)

As I’ve mentioned several times in this space, my first year of rabbinical school was really difficult for me, for a number of reasons. For one, everything was new: We moved to a new city so that I could start a graduate program in an area I’d never done academic study before after being out of school for more than 10 years. Plus I was being asked to make myself vulnerable on a daily basis with people I didn’t know at all — and to think about some of the most profound questions that we ask ourselves as human beings. Then, add all of this to the fact that the people I was with eight hours a day (my first-year cohort) had a fair amount of trouble trusting each other and meshing as group.

I started seeing a therapist here in December of 2012, just a few months into my first year of school. I know it was a good idea in a general way — if I’m going to be in a pastoral role, I need to have dealt with my own issues so that I’m not holding my own pain while holding others’ — but what motivated me to seek help then was an explosive incident in class. My intense reaction to the discussion took me by surprise (and, if I’m being honest, embarrassed me, too).

I completely lucked out in my “search” for a therapist in the area: I visited just one woman, who had been recommended to me, and I felt like it was a good fit immediately. I’ve been seeing her ever since.

I’ve been in therapy on and off since college when I first started seeing someone in the university’s health services department. I didn’t go regularly until I lived in D.C. and I needed support for my volunteer work at the rape crisis center. I now go once a week, and I feel like I need every hour.

everything is broken (source: moshe giventhal)

everything is broken (source: moshe giventhal)

Sometimes it’s frustrating to think about how many years I’ve been working on my issues, for indeed, I am still dealing with a lot of the stuff that I first started talking about in college. There’s a part of me that wants to just be done with it and move on. But I also know that’s not really how it works. I do hope, however, that my need for help will someday not feel as urgent as it does now. Right now, I at times feel broken beyond repair. I wonder if I’ll ever feel whole, or anything like it.

There are definitely bright spots, though. I know how absolutely privileged I am to even be able to see a therapist, let alone be free to find a good fit and not have the choice be limited by insurance. (My insurance does cover part of the cost, but I’m reimbursed at the out-of-network provider rate, and paying for part of expensive is still expensive.) I also am beyond grateful to my husband, who also recognizes how important this is for me and has agreed to prioritize the expense. I am also fortunate to have been able to find medication that very effectively helps with my depression. Most of the time, I feel “normal” — or more accurately, I feel like myself. And that is a relief.

This is not to say, however, that I don’t have times when I feel depressed, when I can’t do much of anything. It doesn’t happen a lot, but when it does, I feel helpless. I have a hard time accessing my own strength and resources that I know theoretically that I have. (For a good illustration of how depression works, see these posts from Hyperbole and a Half: Adventures in Depression and Depression Part Two.) All I can do most of the time is wait for it to pass, which it usually does within a couple of days (which relatively short period of time I am extremely grateful for — though it doesn’t always feel “short”). I wake up one day feeling better, and I pick myself up and go back to my life.

I write this because I think sharing my story, my journey with mental illness, is an important part of destigmatizing it and destigmatizing seeking help for it. I write this for myself, too: I can’t always convince myself of the fact that my depression is not a moral failing on my part, even though I know intellectually that it is so. It’s chemical, and it’s genetic (several members of my family also have experience with depression). I continue to work on accepting the fact that I will probably struggle with this my whole life — and that I’ll be on medication for the rest of my life. And some days that feels more acceptable and manageable than others.


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