show compassion

I gave this d’var Torah at Fort Tryon Jewish Center on August 3, 2019.

Today we are at the intersection of a lot of different, and conflicting, modes of Jewish time.

In Torah. We just read parashiyot Matot and Masei. We heard Jack chant special trope, the “desert traveling melody,” for the list of places the Israelites have been for the past 40 years. Maimonedes says that the summary is there as a testament to the miracles that Gd performed for the Israelites, but a midrash claims the enumeration is meant to remind the Israelites of all the times they angered Gd.

And in the calendar. Yesterday was Rosh Chodesh, usually a time of joy and hope for renewal. But the rabbis also tell us mishenichnas av mema’atin besimchah: “When the month of Av arrives, we diminish our rejoicing.”

And in the holiday cycle. We are in the midst of the nine days before Tisha B’Av, when traditionally we observe some restrictions to prepare ourselves for the intense day of mourning.

And finally, in the week. It’s Shabbat, the sanctuary in time, the taste of the world to come.

That’s a lot of different moods and modes coming together to try to hold right now.

I’m told by Ami’s Facebook status that, B”H, Mercury is no longer in retrograde. So at least there’s that.

I trust the wisdom of the Jewish calendar. I understand holidays as a container for experiences. The rituals, liturgy, readings, sounds, tastes, sights, and other requirements or customs are designed to help us get into the essence of the holiday. When I’m not where I’m supposed to be, I can act like I am and maybe get there eventually.

I have to be honest: I’m not having any trouble this year getting to despair. 

And I am not a person easily given to despair. I’ve staked my career, my life, on the spark of the divine in each person. I’ve bet all I have and all I am on human beings’ ability to learn and change and grow. I believe, b’chol m’odecha, that Judaism and the Gd of history are radical forces of liberation.

But I might have reached my limit this week, between all that is happening in the country, and all that is happening in the Jewish community. I don’t even really need to get into it. Whatever you’re thinking of has probably contributed to my despair. I’ve wanted to cry. I’ve cried. I’ve cried out.

A couple of months ago, I read Torah here at FTJC. And I blew it. I got up to the amud right here, and I just couldn’t remember a lot of the words and trope. I was embarrassed, but I was also confused. I certainly thought I knew it. And I don’t usually choke when I read Torah. 

I’ve done a lot of reflecting on that moment since then, with my therapist and with my spiritual director. For me, in almost any experience, the operative questions are: What am I supposed to be paying attention to in that moment? And: Where is Gd in that moment?

When I told my rabbi, Rabbi Victor Reinstein, about what happened, he asked, What parshah was it?

Tazria, I sighed. Everyone’s favorite. (I hadn’t really wanted to pull at that thread. Tazria is such an easy target, and I didn’t want to hear something apologetic like, Oh, well, that’s just difficult and repetitive Hebrew! Or, something reductive like, Oh, well, those are just painful verses to read!)

Rabbi Victor looked at me. Have I ever told you that one of my favorite parts of Torah is in Tazria?

He went to the bookshelf, pulled out a sefer, overflowing with post-it notes and slips of paper, sat down next to me, and opened to Vayikra, chapter 13, verse 45, about the person whose ailment is deemed beyond cure: וְטָמֵא טָמֵא יִקְרָא. “And they shall cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean!’” Yeah, I remembered reading that.

The traditional understanding is that the sufferer cries out, יִקְרָא, to forcefully warn all who come near that they are impure: Stay away; I’m contaminated!

Rabbi Victor pointed to commentary from the Torah Temimah: מלמד שצריך להודיע צערו לרבים ורבים מבקשים עליו רחמים, “This teaches that they are supposed to announce their ailment to everyone, and everyone seeks compassion for them.” 

He gestured lower, where an explanation continued with, שיתרפע מצרעתו, “so that they are healed from their ailment.” 

וְטָמֵא טָמֵא יִקְרָא is not, in fact, hopeless surrender to calamity. It’s an invitation for support and the possibility of comfort.

The text then brings in a discussion in the Talmud, Sanhedrin 104b, of Eicha chapter 1, verse 2, a text we will read together in a week. בָּכוֹ תִבְכֶּה בַּלַּיְלָה, “she cries at night.”

The gemara asks, למה בלילא?, Why “at night”?

Answer 1:

בלילה שכל הבוכה בלילה קולו נשמע, “at night? because everyone who cries at night, their voice is heard.” 

Answer 2:

 ד”א בלילה שכל הבוכה בלילה השומע קולו בוכה כנגדו, “at night? because everyone who cries at night, whoever hears their voice cries with them.”

We cry out at night — and others hear us.

We cry out in the dark — and others have compassion on us.

We cry out in dark times — and others cry out with us.

We cry — and Gd cries with us.

Where was Gd in the moment I was reading, or trying to read, וְטָמֵא טָמֵא יִקְרָא? When my heart was sinking, when my mind was racing, when my spirit was floundering? The answer, as it so often is, is in the text.

That moment was humiliating, devastating.

But Gd was with me when I was up here at this amud, floundering in Torah. You were with me, too.

As I am sitting today with all of the different messages I am getting from this time —

from today’s Torah portion, about the miracles Gd performed for us in the desert, but also about the sins we committed against Gd in the desert; 

from Rosh Chodesh, that it may be l’sasson u’l’simchah, “for gladness and joy,” but also mema’atin besimchah, that “we reduce our joy”; 

and from the combination of the Nine Days and Shabbat, that we mourn but that we also experience a taste of ha’olam ha’ba, the world to come —

I want to remember that a moment of crying out to warn people to stay away is also a prompt for people to draw near. That a time of despair is also an opportunity for compassion. That being in darkness obscures the fact that we are not alone.

As the director of organizing at a human rights organization, whose main focus is immigration policy, I get a lot of calls and emails, every day, from people who are crying out, “What can we do?” 

I can share with you what is now a 17-page document of suggestions. I can talk to you about ways your community can work on allyship. I can direct you to local organizations led by people most-affected by the issue. I can tell you when the next protest is.

But honestly? Lately I’ve just wanted to say, מבקשים עליו רחמים. Seek compassion.

Next week, I will spend the first part of Tisha B’Av with you, mourning and praying and learning and fasting. And then in the afternoon I will risk arrest with a lot of other rabbis at an action that is one of many happening all across the country that day.

I hope that all of these #CloseTheCamps events on TIsha B’Av, like the Never Again actions, demonstrate the collective outcry of the Jewish community against our country’s immigration policies that seek to dehumanize and humiliate so many people.

But I don’t know, and I’m not sure anyone knows, what is actually going to close the camps, or stop ICE, or change hearts and minds. We’ll keep acting. 

But every time we hear an outcry — whether it be a shutdown of an ICE facility, or yet another horrifying story — let that manifestation of desperation be a call upon us for רחמים.

Let us cultivate the infinite resource of compassion: for others, from others, for ourselves, and from ourselves.

Shabbat shalom.