Thursday, September 28, 2017

Water and Fire - Unetaneh Tokef

Ribbono shel olam,
Master of eternity,

Who numbers the stars
and the dust,
Who counts our souls -
our deeds -
our days.

You, who remembers
what time has forgotten,

Who writes and seals -
though we tell our own stories,
and live our own lives -
Blessed is the One
Who opens the gates
that we, ourselves, have closed.

God of stillness and secrets,
whose name is hidden
within our own,

Let me draw near
so that I may know
water and fire,
sword and beast,
famine and thirst,
riot and plague.

Sound the shofar!
I will hear your call
while angels tremble,
That I may know
rest and wandering,
harmony and dissonance,
peace and suffering.

Write upon my heart
poverty and richness,
degradation and exaltation.

God of power and compassion,
of mercy and hope,

Breathe into me repentance.
Sing into me righteousness.
Fill me with prayer.

Let me return, God.
Fling wide the gates.

On Rosh Hashana it is written
On Yom Kippur it is sealed.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The Taste of Salt

I don't find answers;
I  rearrange the mysteries.
The questions rest upon the waves;
they are the color of water,
changing with the light
and tasting of salt.

I think that God is there
- not that there is a place
where God is not -
but I think God likes the waves
and the feel of giddy unsteadiness.
I think God likes
the taste of salt.

There are no gates there
on the water.
They could never stand on the
ceaseless waves.
And even if some miracle
tied them to those shifting tides,
any gate would rust or rot
in the salted, briny air.
Then what good would they be?
They could hardly keep me out,
and could never keep God in.

Perhaps this is why God
likes that place
of water and
light that tastes of tears.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

In the Space of Tekiyah - a reflection on the birthday of the world

It seems I have been writing this particular essay every day for the last seven years. Some days, I merely rearrange a comma or two; others, I'm excising whole paragraphs or creating something completely new and brilliant. If I'm to be honest, I know I cannot rewrite my brother's life or his death. I cannot rewrite my search for God, nor my constant hope for redemption, even when I'm sure I deserve it least.

I fear there are too many words, too many ideas and things to say, floating around in my head. I know, somewhere, somewhen, that they connect.  I can feel that, feel them all jostling for position, taking up residence in some little known and cobwebbed corner of my head, leaving a faint pattern in the dust and clutter.

Except, when I poke around, to find which of the eleventy-seven stories running around loose in my head is whispering "start here..." I get lost.  That internal torch gutters, sending bizarre fun-house shadows to distort my visions, and then they all go skittering about, playing hide-and-seek with the shadows and light.

And, since I can't find the beginning of this thread, can't seem to be able to tease and coax the end out from the tangled ball of string it has become, I thought about starting at the end. I could, but I don't know what that is yet either. So, I will pick one bright and shiny things to start with, and see where that leads. It may be a beginning, though more likely, it will be a middle. There are many more middles than beginnings. I will pick one thing, and see what happens.  I'm pretty sure I'll at least recognize the end, whenever we get to that.

So. First - redemption.  It's all about redemption.  My redemption, to be exact, and my quest for it.  And my fear that I will never find it. Or receive it. And it's about God. It's all about God, too. Always. And my quest for God. And my fear that I will never find God or forgiveness. And that I will never be able to forgive God. The pain of this fear is almost unbearable.

I spent a couple of decades denying God and redemption both. That pain was unimaginable. I am reminded of the midrash of King David and the origins of the Adonai S'fatai, which is the prayer we say at the beginning of the Amidah. David, the rabbis tell us, had sent a man to his certain death for the sake of satisfying his own selfish need. The man, Uriah, was a man of honor. He would not be  dissuaded when David had a sudden change of heart. He was killed in battle, along with most of his troops. David got word of Uriah's death just before eveing prayers.

What was he to do? He knew that he would have to talk to God, to ask forgiveness. But-- and here's the hard part-- David's fear: what if God said no? What if God refused?David ran into the fields, running from himself, from his fear, from God, until he could run no farther. How could he ask God for forgiveness, when he couldn't forgive himself? He stopped, just as the setting sun hit the horizon, staining the sky with crimson and gold and purple, and he cried out, in his fear and longing "Adonai s'fatai tiftach ufid yagid t'hilatecha..."

God, open my lips, that I may declare your praise...

And with that prayer-- filled to its very edges with pain and humility and hope and despair, David was forgiven.

Well sure, the voices in my head whisper, God can forgive David. Let's face it: he's, well, David. His very name means "beloved..." And you're not. You're... you. All bet's are off.

It is my greatest longing, my unrequited quest-- to be redeemed. To be forgiven. To dance in the palm of God's hand. To believe, if even for an instant, that though I may not be David, though I may not be Beloved, I may find a small piece of it, and that that may be enough.

Today is Rosh Hashanah. A new year, and already such a busy, joyous one! The Book of Life and Death is opened and the Gates of Justice swing wide. It's the birthday of the world. Today, we stand with awe and trepidation as we undertake the breathtaking majesty of diving inwards, a deep and long and solitary dive, into murky waters that make us gasp and shiver with cold. But eventually, the water warms and the silt and grit settle and we learn to see, to shine a light on the inside, all the beauty, all the pain, all the hope and need.

It is all about redemption.

Today is redemption and majesty and reflection and God. It is joy and celebration and hope and...

Whatever today is, whatever the ritual and tradition that surrounds this day may be, what today is, what today will ever and always be, is my brother's yahrzeit. For all the pomp and circumstance of Rosh HaShanah, for all my desperate yearning for redemption and God, drowning out the music and prayer and the triumphant sounding of the shofar that opened the Book and flung wide the Gate - all I can hear is the steady cadence of "This is the anniversary of his death."

This is one of those days that I am less forgiving of God.  This is the second thing.

I know - absolutely know - that God is not at fault in this. God didn't set the butterfly's wings to flapping that ended in the hurricane of my brother's death. There was no Divine Plan here. Randy smoked four packs of cigarettes a day, existed on caffeine and nicotine. He was diagnosed with stage four metastatic lung cancer when he was 45, and died when he was 47. Not a day goes by that I don't miss him, though I don't think of him every day like I did. Stretches of time go by-- a handful of days, a week, some small length of time, and I will suddenly stop, feeling the ache of his loss like a stitch in my side, sharp and hot, receding into a dull throb until it is more memory than real. My breath doesn't  catch in my throat when I think of him. Mostly. I say kaddish at every yizcor service, and I do not weep.  Mostly.

He died because he smoked. He died because he got cancer. But he died today, seven years ago. On Rosh HaShanah, the day of pomp and circumstance and joy and celebration. I was with him in the hospital when he died, literally as the shofar sounded down the hall from his room, And so the Book was laid open and the Gates swung wide and my brother died, all in the space of tekiyah. And so today has suddenly become hard. And I am suddenly less forgiving of God.

And for all of that, when I stood in prayer and my knees began to buckle from the weight of my sorrow, when I was filled with an ocean of pain and loss, when I wanted to curse God-- when I did curse God-- there were hands that reached out to hold me steady, and strong arms to carry me through to firm ground. When I demanded of God, to God-- where the hell are You?  I was answered: here.  No farther than the nearest heartbeat, in the still small voices of all those around me, who showed me, again and again, that I was not alone. Even in my pain, even in my doubt and despair, I was not alone.

And so, the third thing: Redemption.

I started there, I know. Perhaps my ball of string, with its jumble of tangled threads and hopeless mess, was less eleventy-seven different things and more a giant mobius strip of one. Perhaps it is all reflections and variations on a single strand. Perhaps, at least for me, it is all about redemption.  And God.  Ever and always.

I have spent a lifetime yearning for redemption. I have spent an eternity of lifetimes searching for God. I have declared my disbelief in God even as I feared that God didn't believe in me. I have shouted my rage and demanded answers and whispered my praise. And the thing I come back to, again and again, like a gift of impossible and breathless wonder--

It is not what I pray that matters.  It is that I pray.

For all my yearning, for all my longing, what I don't ever realize is that I am redeemed.  I have not been abandoned by God. Neither have I been forgotten. David had it right in his psalms: we cry out to God and we are healed. He didn't tell us "God only hears the pretty words. Speak only of love and praise, only then will you be heard." No, it's pretty clear: we find healing and redemption because we cry out in our anger and our fear.

I do not believe in a Santa Claus god, who bestows presents on the deserving: God does not provide parking spaces or jobs, nor do we win wars or sporting events as the result of our faith and prayers. Good people will die, evil people will prosper, the sun will continue to blaze in the noonday sky. world without end, amen amen.

In my faith, in my prayer, what I find, again and again - what I am given, again and again, is grace. What I get is strength and courage to face what life has placed in front of me in that moment - even if that thing is the death of my beloved brother. My faith is not a guarantee that I will never know fear, or that only good and happy things will happen. My faith, my prayer, allows me to put one foot in front of the other and know that I will be carried through. And in that exact moment,  the moment I take that step, I am enough and I am redeemed. And in that moment, I dance in the palm of God's hand.

For my brother, Randy (z"l)
May we all dance in the palm of God's hand

L'shana tova u'metukah
May you have a good and sweet year

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Jacob's Ladder

David's harp urges me
and the horns of Abraham's
dilemma push me,
and Jacob's ladder is crowded
with angels. They move aside,
not without some attitude,
so I may stumble up those
narrow rungs; still -
elevated though I am,
there is only dust
and a blaze of Glory
in the far distance.

I am meant to follow,
with open hands
and open heart,
to feel the quickening
of my blood
that moves in equal time
with my shame
and my joy, my fear and
love, my grief and my ecstasy,
So that I may claim them all,
as they have claimed me -
and once claimed,
I may again stand at the gates
and ask to enter.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

To God, who divides the waters

Nachshon ran from the narrow places, 
racing to freedom and God,
stopped on the shoes of a forever sea,
when he walked into the waters
until they almost swallowed him whole.
Past his chin they came,
but he didn't stop:
He walked; they rose.

And then they parted.

Just like that,
a miracle of divine order!
The angels flew about,
singing sweet psalms
cheering the all those marchers on,
until God reined them in,
showering them with shame.

The waters rise once more,
chest-high currents
that eddy and ripple and 
drag at the angels' sodden feet
and leaden wings, 
hosannas sung in a minor key.

Dear God, who moves 
upon the water's face;
who divided the waters 
and makes the rain;
Who sends the storms
and attends the tides -
do You wait again for Nachshon,
wrapped in his faith 
and in his folly,
to walk, and show You
once more, where the waters 
need to part?