While preparing to daven Musaf on the 8th day of Passover, I made the decision to cross over into a new way of praying to God. Rather than read the words on the page carefully and with meaningful spiritual intention; or sing along with the leader quietly; or close my eyes and rock, meditatively, to the ethereal dialogue of the ages, I just spoke.
In the paragraph addressing the God of our ancestors, I did just that and gave thanks for those who came before that I never met but whose image and values I carry with me each day. To the God of Strength and Giving Life to the Dead I gave thanks for names and words that still live not just in me but in my children and with hope, one day, my grandchildren. For the God of Holiness, ordinarily lathered with complimentary angels all around, I gave thanks for the Distinction and Uniqueness of the Jewish people, the Jewish narrative, the many Jewish languages and foods and folkways of existence that have animated our People for millennia.
Suddenly, though seated in a somewhat private area of the small chapel, I felt myself surrounded by not quite grace but a gathering of souls that were egging me on for more candor in prayer. The prayerbook slowly relaxed at my side; the tallis on my shoulders a hero's cape; and my pointed words, my bitter complaints and my stubborn gratitude gave way to a deep breath and renewed commitment to being a guy who gives a damn about Justice.
And Justice was the restored Chapel window I chose to sit next to on Tuesday morning. Mercy, Justice and Humility, as they are arrayed.
Micah, you'll notice, placed Justice first, preceding in order Mercy/Love and Humility. But when the architects built the CBE Temple House, for whatever reason, Justice was made the center window in this triptychal statement of early 20th century American Reform Judaism. The fulcrum of the contemporary Jewish life that would come to be on the welcoming shores of this nation, they seemed to be saying, would be Justice. I need to be in Shul for the Holy Days; Light the Menorah; and host a Passover Seder. But most important, Do Justice.
Like many American Jews of the past few generations, Justice is at the center of our identity. In the very myth-making of our secular Jewish identities which have always drawn mightily upon the scaffolding of Exodus, Labor Rights, Women's Rights, Civil Rights and Two States for Two People, it is forever "justice, justice" that we are commanded to pursue.
I felt that on Tuesday morning. I really did. Freed from the obligation to simply mouth the words, to carry on with an exercise that sometimes feels like the aping of the imagined actions of my pious forebearers, I broke through a wall and spoke directly to God.
Silent God. Enthroned above a world where so much goes wrong. But whose fault is that? His words, afterall, came to me loud and clear.
Your mess, He said. You clean it up. Poverty. Housing. Guns. Racism. Jobs. Education. Peace. It's all there. In Micah and Amos. In Isaiah and Jeremiah. In you and me.
Mercy and Humility are there to offer balance, to move us up and down the ladder, like Jacob's dream angels, ascending and descending in gestures of compassion, comfort and love, there for us when we're so damn exhausted and sometimes even broken from the effort, for the backwards slides, for the indignity of convincing others that this is God's real work for us. So fixing what's broken hard work. It's not like we're the first generation to figure it out. Avadim Hayinu and all that.
There's a powerful scene in Yoram Kaniuk's memoir, 1948, in which long after the War for Independence, Kaniuk encounters a fellow soldier, now elderly like him and walking with his granddaughter, on Allenby Street in Tel Aviv. There is recognition of one another, laughter and then this: "We exchanged a few words, I said something to him, he was moved, and then there were no more words. His life and mine had not stayed the same. We had a memory from one day aboard a ship when he was a young, scared and angry boy who had sold his dead parents' diamonds to the SS and now he's an adult, introducing to me his wife and daughter, or granddaughter, I don't remember. We remained silent for a few moments and then went our separate ways, because we didn't have anything to say to each other, the memories exchanged glances and sentences, but we didn't have the words to talk about them."
This is what prayer is often like for so many people, looking down into the book, exchanging glances and sentences, but left with a feeling, too frequent and for some too painful, that there are "no words to talk about them."
But there are words. You have to find them. By pounding away. Like the way one pursues Justice.
14 April 2014
14 Nisan 5774
With another Spring upon us and Brooklyn in bloom, we gather at communal tables this evening to celebrate Passover and tell our people's redemptive story from servitude and liberation and praise.
For generations this telling has animated our existence. In tasting the matza and maror, we embody not just the remembrance but the experience of slavery's restrictions on the human spirit. In lifting up our cups of wine, however, we also claim that we are to "revere, extol, acclaim, adore and glorify God who for our ancestors and for us took us from slavery to freedom, from despair to joy, from mourning to celebration, from darkness to light, from slavery to redemption."
The promise is in the telling. In the telling there is the reification of the covenant that even in the darkest times there is hope. And in the journey from Egypt to Sinai--from the idolatrous servitude toward a cruel master to the sublime devotion through Torah, Prayer and Deeds of Loving Kindness--we have sustained ourselves and will continue to sustain ourselves for all time.
Our hearts are heavy this evening as we offer prayers of comfort to the families in Kansas City who fell victim to the cruel violence of a madman. "In every generation," the Hagadah reminds us, there will be those who rise up in hatred. The suspect in the shooting had been tracked by the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama, an organization our CBE high school students visited in March on our Civil Rights tour. It is humbling and chilling to realize that such hatreds remain and a sobering reminder of the work that remains for us all. Our task, our role in this world, is to remain ever vigilant as well as a beacon of hope and light for our own people and all humankind. This is Elijah's hope. This is the Cup of Redemption.
In a world with so much need, with individuals and families seeking material, spiritual and emotional sustenance, we must always offer this Cup of Hope. We offer this cup to those who are hunger and in need of shelter; to those whose spirits are broken and require our love and support in community each Shabbat; and we offer this cup to those seeking a connection to the Jewish story, a way in, to join us on the sacred journey.
From our brothers and sisters seeking to live in peace in Israel to our community and neighbors here in Brooklyn, the Hagadah exhorts that this night is a "season of liberation." So it may be. May our efforts bring us that much closer to peace. May our efforts bring us that much closer to eradicating hunger and homelessness. May our efforts bring healing to the hearts of those in need. And may our historic community in Brooklyn at Congregation Beth Elohim remain a sanctuary of goodness and kindness for all who seek a meaningful connection to our Jewish tradition.
In these endeavors, may we "soar with arms like eagle's wings and run with the gentle grace of swiftest deer." And may each of you blessed with good health and joy in this season of liberation.
Rabbi Andy Bachman