Sunday, June 11, 2017

No matter how far apart we are

Theories about the creation of people, that I know about anyway, seem to come down to three:

God created Adam in the Garden of Eden.
All people evolved somewhere in Africa.
Some combination of the two happened.

Maybe that is 2 1/2 theories.

In any case, it hit me that they all have something in common. At some point, there was only one: one creature of both sexes or one man (depending on the version of the creation story you are reading in the Torah), or one person (beginning the evolutionary chain).

One. One body. One soul.

Think about that. Today there are over 7.5 BILLION. From one to 7.5 billion.

(You can watch the world population number go up here: if you are that kind of person. Apparently I am. I found it oddly fascinating to watch the page tick off births, deaths, and today's population increase. 

And I had to check: The US has the 3rd largest population in the world. Israel has the 98th largest, which is kind of scary.)

Anyway, back to the point... which is that everyone alive today is, at base, related. We all came from that one body and one soul. 

Religiously I'd been taught that before but it never really resonated with me. You know how sometimes something is just words, then suddenly you realize, on some deep level, what the words mean. I had been told many times that the reason God made only one man during creation was so that no one could claim their ancestors were created before other peoples'. After all, everyone came from that same guy.

And I've read a little about evolution. In fact I have a book in my unread book pile about evolution right now. (Perry Marshall, Evolution 2.0 - no recommendation, after all it is in my unread pile, but it seems like it will be a fascinating read when I get to it. He is a Christian who believes in intelligent design and science. This book is his reconciliation of the two.)

Yesterday, my rabbi was NOT talking about this. But, in talking about repairing the world, he  explained that we could envision that original one soul being fractured, like dropping a very large glass bowl, into millions of pieces. (He went on to say it is our job to help find and put all the pieces back together, but that is not what this piece is about.)

That image, though, shook me up and gave me one of those "light bulb" moments.

We all came from the same soul, the same breath of God being breathed into one lump of clay. Or, if you don't believe in God, from whatever evolutionary nudge caused an aquatic creature to become a land based creature drawing its first breath of air.

It was a wake up moment for me. That that first breath of air (wherever it came from) was my first breath of air, was everyone alive today's first breath of air. 

Yoko Ono, of all people, (not my favorite anything I have to admit, even though I don't think she broke up the Beatles. If you don't know who the Beatles are, don't worry about it) did write a poem I always thought was kind of profound. It's called AIR TALK and strangely enough, it sums up what I've been saying:

It’s sad that the air is the only thing we share.

No matter how close we get to each other,
there is always air between us.

It’s also nice that we share the air,

No matter how far apart we are
the air links us.

No matter what some racist, pseudo-scientists may say about the inherent differences between the races, that first breath of air links us all. It will always link us all.

It might be a better world if folks would think about that before maiming and killing; or even before just being rude or nasty to other people who share the same life's breath.

I am certainly going to make an effort to keep it in the front of my mind before I open my mouth to deliver, what would previously have been, some off-hand cutting remark to the person next to me who shares the air.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

My name is Issac. My father tried to murder me this morning.

My father – a holy and revered man, a good man. No, more than good, the best man I know, whom I love.

Abraham – known to all as a man who walks with God - brought a knife so close to my throat that I could feel the trickle of blood when, at the very last moment, he pulled it away.

I couldn’t move when he untied the knots that bound me there. He had to help me up. That’s when I noticed I had wet myself and the blood at my throat matched my face burning red with the shame of it.

He set me down well away from the alter, as though he was now trying to protect me from harm.  He carefully slaughtered the ram, then said grateful prayers to his God. I began to shake. 

I’d wondered what we were about from the beginning of the journey, when my father woke me, so careful not to wake my mother. Why would he not say goodbye to his beloved wife? And if we were to make a sacrifice, where was the animal? But I had known since I raised up my eyes and saw the great mountain surround by God’s presence. The others who accompanied us could not see it. I knew why I could. It was the place of my death.

I felt the Adversary taunting me. “Run you fool! You know you are the animal! He’s old and weak! You can get away!”

We came to the high place and began stacking the rocks, then placing the wood. Creating the place of Sacrifice. “Father,” I finally ask, “where is the animal?”

Refusing to look at me, he said “God will provide, my beloved son.”

Adversary: “Beloved? He’s about to slaughter you! Perhaps he should! You stand there holding the rope! Perhaps you are an animal! Fool! Run!”

I could have, you know. I could have knocked him to the ground. He would not have tried to hold me back.

I saw he hoped I would run.

I saw the tears he was holding back.
I saw the pure love he had for me.
I saw his determination to do what he felt his God wanted him to do.

How do I know that God ordered him to kill me? My father didn’t tell me and God has never spoken to me. Although sometimes I feel as if I have had little glimpses of him – just a brush of awareness like the brush of a bit of fabric on your arm as someone walks past you. I think of Him as my father’s God, but I know He is mine too.

And I’ve spent my entire life listening to my father teach and watching his joy when God is with him.

I know.

I know because my father would not do this thing on his own. 

I know because the Adversary taunts me with it again and again: “Boy, stupid, stupid boy. God, your God,” he sneers, "wants you dead. Has ordered your own father to kill you. You obviously do not know God. But you know your father. Do you think he will refuse?" 

And then, far worse than the sneering, he laughs... And laughs... And laughs. I would cover my ears, but, of course, that will not shut out this sound.

I am terrified. I want to run. Fast and far. Never to come back.

But I look over at my father. On his face determination warring with love. Love. Who does my father love? Me? God?

Isaac: “Be gone Adversary. Did you really think I would so dishonor this good man who loves me – who I love?”

Although who might not fight or flinch or run at the last moment. Standing beside the stones and the wood I have helped my father pile up, I look him in the eye. With a slight smile I lay down.

Isaac: “Bind me tightly, Father. I would not inadvertently hurt you, or flinch and ruin the sacrifice.” 

Or run. How much I want to run. I turn my head away and whisper “I love you.” To my father? To God? Perhaps to my mother, of whose love I have no doubts?

When it is over, the ram dead and burned, the prayers said, my father walks toward me, perhaps to embrace me. I look down and back away.

I cannot bear to look at my father, to walk beside him, as if nothing has changed between us. So I lag behind, returning home alone.  I carry the rope with me. It is never out of my hands. I jump at the smallest sound. I have no appetite. I do not sleep. I cannot bear the nightmares. But the waking visions are worse. Waking or sleeping I see it. I feel the knife at my throat. Sometimes I simply stand and shake: Will God demand this of my father again? Will He demand it of me?

And yet…

I am almost certain I felt the tip of an angel’s wing come between me and that knife. Did my father’s God, my God, save me in the end? And if he did, why demand my death in the first place? 

And why, oh God why, did my father not refuse?

I cannot discuss this with my father. I cannot discuss it with anyone. Not now anyway. Perhaps not ever.

My mother would have understood, I am sure of it. But after the walk back through the dessert, which seemed so much longer than the walk to that mountain, I am faced with the news of her death. Her heart had simply stopped when my father enthused to her over the wondrous thing that had just happened to her son. Her only son. The one that she loved.

What will I do now? Who can I share my secrets with? Who will comfort me?

Will God demand this of my father again? Will He demand it of me?

I run my hands over the rope.

Friday, December 30, 2016

I have some serious issues with the Binding of Isaac.

I have some serious issues with the story of the Binding of Isaac.

Throughout his life, God continually tested Abraham and I’ve always thought he failed this test. After all, he argued with God about the destruction of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, you’d think he could have come up some argument to at least try to save his own son. Since my Orthodox teachers say Isaac was 37 when he walked up Mount Moriah, I think he was the one who passed the test. Abraham was over a 100 years old at this point. Isaac was younger and stronger than his father, he could have gotten away. But he chose to honor his father, to honor God by allowing himself to be bound on that altar. Some stories say he even demanded to be bound so that he would not flinch away when he saw the knife descending and thus ruin the perfection of the sacrifice.

Discussing this with a Rabbi I know he told me I was wrong, that I didn’t understand what the test was.

Me: “Kill your son?” No. “Do whatever God tells you to do without question?” No.

Rabbi: “Consider… what is the most important thing Abraham would have lost if he had sacrificed Isaac?”

Me: “Ummm…” Not my most impressive response.

Later I spend some time trying to figure that out, by imagining myself into Abraham.

The presence of God says: “Sacrifice your son, your only son, the one you love.”

Confused, Abraham finally stammers: “What?”

But God is already gone.

Abraham plops down in the desert, frowning, thinking: What just happened? Surely, the God I have loved and worshipped all these years wouldn’t command me to kill Isaac. Surely I must be mistaken! He promised me that Isaac would carry on my name, my work; that, through him, my offspring would be as numerous as the stars!

Kill him? Surely not. I must have misunderstood. He’s always told me He didn’t want human sacrifice and I’ve taught that to everyone.

Sarah, my beloved Sarah, will never forgive me!

And what of my followers? They will all think that I’m a hypocrite, a liar, a charlatan! That I’ve misled them - for some nefarious purposes of my own. My followers will all desert me. Sarah will leave me. I’ll be completely alone!

And will they be wrong?

I’ve told people for a hundred years that the one God of the Universe doesn’t require or want human sacrifices. I meant it, didn’t I? It’s true, isn’t it? Or have I been deluded all these years, not truly understanding Him.

Or maybe He was indeed communicating with me, but I misunderstood what He revealed. After all, I am not one who sees God face to face. Do I truly know what he wants of us – of me?

He wants me to kill my son.

He wants me to kill my son.

He wants me to kill my son.

No matter how he says it, or how many times he says it, Abraham has trouble bringing himself to believe it.

Killing anyone is morally wrong. How can it possibly be right to kill my beautiful boy, my wonderful boy. Flesh of my flesh. Whom I love beyond all things. My Isaac?

But… God did command me. I am certain He did. Why would He do that? Why would he do that to me? Haven’t I served him long and faithfully? Haven’t I done all I was asked to do? Left my home and my family.  Travelled through hostile lands. Risked my wife’s virtue, even her life. And my own, for that matter.

I already turned out one son at God’s word. How can He ask this of me? How can He? Isaac is innocent… a good man… He loves God!

An old man, crouching in the desert, weeping, alone.

Standing finally, staring up at the sky. Softly, so softly: All I can know is that You are. And I am certain You did command me. I’d like to think there must be a good reason, but I don’t know what it is.  Perhaps it is something I can’t know.

Abraham, wiping tears from his eyes, walks slowly back toward his tents. And after stopping for a look at his sleeping wife and son, he begins to prepare the items he will need for the trip he will begin in the morning. The task will not be easier if he puts it off.

It will be a long sleepless night. Perhaps for the first time since Isaac was a baby, Abraham sits and watches him sleeping.

I will lose my reputation. My life’s work.

But You are God and you commanded it.

I will lose my wife. My descendants.

But You are God and you commanded it.

I will lose my son. My only son. The one that I love.

But You are God and you commanded it.

Who am I to ask You to spare me this?

If the test was the question “Are you willing to lose everything you value because I commanded it?” And the knife at Isaac’s throat was the answer, then perhaps Abraham did pass.

But I have to say, I am still not entirely convinced. God took everything from Job, and he cried out at the injustice of it. Why didn’t Abraham? 

Thursday, November 10, 2016

I'm not going to let my passport expire

Everyone, well... at lot of people, and a lot of people in various religious communities, are writing about the election, so probably I shouldn't. But, never being one to allow rules or logic to stop me, I'm going to anyway.

Yesterday at work I was a mess. I came home last night and locked myself in, and couldn't make myself go out again for any reason. I had cereal for dinner because that is all I had in the house. I wasn't even willing to go to the grocery store, and it's downstairs. I turned off a show I usually like because they were doing an episode about computer hackers taking over an election. It made my stomach hurt.

Sometimes something happens that is not quite a miracle, but it is the exact right thing at the exact right time that lets you know God is peeking out from behind the curtain (like the Wizard in the Emerald City) and pushing something in front of you that you ought to pay attention to. I had one of those Divine Coincidences happen to me today.

I was looking for some comfort music to go along with my comfort food of choice, today chocolate. I listened to every version of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" I could find, and there are a lot of them. Then I moved on to Mahalia Jackson, Joshua Nelson, and Debbie Friedman. Finally I randomly stumbled across a song from the Color Purple soundtrack, "Maybe God is Trying to Tell You Something (Speak Lord)".

I listened to it a couple of times. And in addition to helping me get through the day, it occurred to me that maybe God was trying to tell me something.

You probably already know this, but the popular vote in the election was split almost exactly 50/50 with Hillary Clinton actually getting a few hundred thousand more, 59,938,290 votes to Donald Trump's 59,704,886. Neither candidate got more than 50 percent of the vote: As of noon Wednesday, Clinton stood at 47.7 percent and Trump at 47.5 percent. ( Hillary Clinton will become the fifth U.S. presidential candidate to win the popular vote but lose the election.

So far, my favorite thing written about all this is Michael Moore’s “Morning After To-Do List” Facebook Post For Democrats. He's a strange man, but that doesn't mean he's wrong. And seeing someone address the situation with humor let some of the tension in me loosen up a bit. And goodness knows, I needed that.

Here's the thing I realized: No matter who won, approximately 50% of the people were going to be pissed. And I'll be honest with you, I'd rather it was Hillary's half since I don't think they're as well armed. That's just my opinion and I have been wrong about such things... from time to time.

But just knowing that 50% of the people didn't vote to have me (and a lot of other folks) killed (or some other Really Bad Thing) gave me at least a glimmer of hope. I think that is the something that God was trying to tell me. So I'm going to blow on that little, tiny glimmer however I can and trust it will be a spark that will someday turn into a roaring fire of sanity.

I actually went out to services tonight to pray for that. I'm going to put my faith in the Divine: that God will let me know when it is no longer safe to stay in my home country. I will hope and pray that that realization never comes to me. 

But since God helps those who help themselves, I'm also going to keep my eye on the cheeseAnd stuff a few dollars under the mattress and not let my passport expire.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Some random articles:

Not at all religious:

But a good read in its own way and it includes this comment: For those who could use some support, text 741741. Free, confidential, anonymous. There may be some slower response times than the usual < 5 minutes, but crisis counselors are doing an amazing job responding to such a huge influx. LGBTQ, people of color, assault survivors, differently abled, other religions – ANYONE feeling overwhelmed about what this means for you? Feeling alone, anxious, maybe even in despair? There is help. Sending you love. Just in case anyone reading this needs help tonight or another night.”


Monday, October 17, 2016

At Least You are Not in Jail

"Well least you are not in jail."

That's the way my mother summed up my life many years ago.

The unspoken part was: You're a failure. These words have continued to rattle around in my head through the years.

I'm not rich or famous. My mother didn't really care about those things. She did care that I didn't become a doctor or a lawyer. I didn't marry one either. I didn't have children (at least not of my body and my mother didn’t understand any other kind.)  I knew those things were my mother's dreams. I don't think it ever crossed her mind that they might not be mine. 

But, even so, is that the best that she could have said about my life?

When I was a kid, I read almost all the books in the children's section of the library. It was across the street from the University of Southern California. It was a good sized library.

I'll be 70 at the end of this year. I've supported myself since I was 19 years old. At the time that I left home, leaving home was a life decision. And except for three months when I was saving up for a car, after my VW bug lost its transmission, I never went back.

At one point I created a random goal for myself to make $100,000 a year, and I did get a contract for that amount. Due to me breaking one of the cardinal rules of my life "never work for crazy people," I never actually got the money but I had the amount as my salary on paper.

Contract aside, I've never had a huge amount of money. But I've shared what I had by giving to charity, and where I couldn't give money, I've given my time.

I've organized others to take food, and have taken food myself, to a women's homeless shelter for the last ten years. I'm currently running a project to make quilts for all the beds in that same shelter.

A group I am in wanted to donate 150 blankets to the shelter and I was the one they contacted to get it done. That happens a lot when someone wants to donate something, they contact me.

And this will be the third year I'll be organizing and helping to serve brunch for 300 at a homeless shelter for men on December 25th.

I've driven across the US by myself three times. I've gone to England, Scotland and the Continent. I've lived in Texas, California, Colorado, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Maryland. I owned two houses in Colorado, and one (the dream house that got away) in Virginia.

Despite my longstanding hatred of exercise, I've participated in three 5K races in the last few years. I staggered in hot, sweaty and dead last in one of them, but I finished. And I've volunteered my time to the club that runs the races enough that folks at races know who I am.

I've had two articles published online, and three in print. Most were not anything amazing, but one was. It was published on a huge Jewish website this past year and it was one of the high points of my life.

I was part of an international medieval reenactment group (the Society for Creative Anachronism - the SCA) for 17 years. I was an officer at the city, state and multi-state level and I received their highest award for organization and service. Another high point for me.

And my “kids” are folks I helped get their start in the SCA. Like lots of children, they outdid they parent by leaps and bounds. I couldn’t be more proud of them if they were the children of my body.

I taught myself about relational databases, HTML coding, CSS and WordPress. I am a power user of Excel, and I taught myself QuickBooks. I also taught myself to read business Spanish. I created a functioning 24/7 call center in an empty room. I built a couple of computers just to see if I could.

I had my fair share of lovers; and even better had, and have, some smart, talented, truly amazing people that I am proud to say were and are my friends. I had a decade long relationship with a man who is absolutely one of the nicest people I have ever met. I am happy to say he still likes me, in spite of the fact that the reason we are not together anymore is all on me. For that matter, I am proud to say I am friends with his current wife.

I lived through all the alcohol and noxious chemicals I put into my body in my 20s and 30s, and through a combination of not being genetically predisposed to addiction and the ability to "just say no" to some things, I walked away from all of it when I decided to do so. (Well... except for white wine and margaritas now and again.)

I put myself through college. I had some good years while there when I was as skinny as I ever was in my life. I looked pretty darned good. I was also a great stage manager, and got to work on several major college productions. I was accepted into graduate school, though I didn't end up going.

I also had a few terribly bad years right after college when I somehow lived through the serious effort I made to end my life. I still don't know how, but it felt as if I walked through a door and once I got to the other side, I’m glad to say that killing myself stopped looking easier than living.

I studied with three rabbis before I found one that I clicked with, and it was five years from the time it crossed my mind to look into Judaism to the time I went to the mikvah to convert. But I stuck with it. I'm proud I'm still learning Torah.

A rabbi I know said everyone is someone’s teacher. Strangely enough, there are a number of Jews of my acquaintance who use me as their authority on matters Jewish. I always think that’s weird, but I do my best for them. I created a Haggadah for some friends whose only Jewish activity is hosting a Passover Seder.

I've spent a good part of my life dealing with things my mother said to me. Somehow no matter how many times someone else has said something that contradicted something she said, what she said is still there and overrides everything else. My relationship with her was the most horrid, the most intense and the most important of my life.

After all these years, I realize that when my mother told me I was a failure, what she meant was that she was a failure. She hadn't been able to make me do what she thought was important: things she hadn't been able to do herself.

When she said those words to me all those years ago, I was stunned. I couldn't respond. But if my mother said that to me now, I could reply. I’d say:

You're wrong. I'm not a failure.

And neither are you.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Flawed Thinking

I am reading this book called "As a Man Thinketh" by James Allen. (Free Book or YouTube) Its premise, as I understand it, is that your circumstances are a reflection of your thoughts. To some extent I can understand this. I understand self sabotage. I understand that if you don't think you deserve to succeed you probably won't. I understand that clearing out the demons of your past will allow you to focus on getting to your future goals.

But I am not sure I am convinced that "good thoughts equal good circumstances and bad thoughts equal bad circumstances" is an immutable law of the Universe.

Mr. Allen wrote:

It has been usual for men to think and to say, "Many men are slaves because one is an oppressor; let us hate the oppressor." Now, however, there is amongst an increasing few a tendency to reverse this judgment, and to say, "One man is an oppressor because many are slaves; let us despise the slaves."

The truth is that oppressor and slave are co-operators in ignorance, and while seeming to afflict each other, are in reality afflicting themselves. A perfect Knowledge perceives the action of law in the weakness of the oppressed and the misapplied power of the oppressor; a perfect Love, seeing the suffering, which both states entail, condemns neither; a perfect Compassion embraces both oppressor and oppressed.

OK. Obviously, I'm black, female, and Jewish; as are the scenarios that flashed through my mind:

  • a black person living in Africa during the 17th century, who ended up working in the hell of a sugar plantation in Jamaica, with a life expectancy of 9 years at best.

  • a young woman, almost anywhere in the world today unfortunately, abducted, drugged into addiction, tortured into submission and forced into prostitution.

  • a Rabbi in Germany during the 2nd World War, suffering in the camp and dying in the gas chambers at Sobibor.

Each of the above with thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of others.

Of course I have no way to know, but what if these people were moral in their thinking before their circumstances changed? What if they even managed moral thoughts afterward?

Or does what happened to them, to all the "thems" it happened to, mean that they were all weak, immoral thinkers?

This is what I am struggling with.

It seems to me that there must be circumstances beyond anyone's control. I am not saying there are not choices a person may have about how they deal with their circumstances, but I am having trouble wrapping my mind around the idea that an ordinary person, going about their lives on an ordinary day, who ends up the next week, enslaved, prostituted, or dead had this happen to them because of their disordered thinking.

The only people I can think of who deserve the fates of the people above, are the ones who did it to them. Despite what Mr. Allen says to the contrary, I have no sympathy for the perpetrators. Perhaps that is a flaw in my thinking.

The book was written in 1902. In England. And near the height of the British Empire. So maybe that is where this type of thinking comes from. As we might say today "first world" thinking. From the rulers. I wonder if those they ruled thought the same things.

I'm not even sure why this bothers me so much. Except that some of the book seems to make sense and some of it seems so fundamentally wrong.

I'm wondering, perhaps hoping, that I'm misunderstanding. 

But right now what I really most want is to stop thinking about this. Maybe my thinking really is flawed.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Blessings & Smoked Salmon

This past Sunday morning, just as I was about to eat a lovely Eggs Benedict made with smoked salmon, I thought to myself how grateful I was that I had gotten up early enough to get to the restaurant while there were still enough open tables that I didn't mind taking up one for a “just one?” as the server always says when I walk in.

But I was a little sad that I couldn't express my gratitude for the food by saying a bracha. For one thing I didn't know what the correct blessing would be. I only know two relative to food, the one over bread and the one over wine. And I'm not sure the one for bread would have been appropriate over an English muffin. What I do know is that which blessing is said when and over what is complicated.

And second, I know you're not supposed to say a bracha over treif food, even if it isn't one of the forbidden foods. As far as I've gotten on the road to keeping kosher is not eating pork, shellfish or meat and milk together (although I have some issues with chicken and milk, that whole cooking a chicken in its mother's milk thing, but that's a post for another time). Still whatever the food is, if it is not cooked in a kosher kitchen, it is still not kosher.

Not being able to say brachas over food has bothered me for awhile, since one of the things that attracted me to Judaism was its built in mnemonics to help me remember to be grateful for the everyday things that it is so easy to take for granted. And goodness knows, I love to eat (if not to cook since it seems to me cooking for one person isn't worth the effort of the clean up) so I have lots of opportunity to be grateful for my food. But since it is usually food from non-kosher restaurants, I can't express it. (I know. I know. Eat in kosher restaurants. I know of two close to where I live, neither of which is especially good, though I eat at one of them anyway because I like the folks who run it.)

I was thinking about all of this as I was enjoying the lemony hollandaise sauce and I decided that even if I couldn't fulfill a commandment there was nothing stopping me from saying some words to express my gratitude.

These are the blessings that I have come up with so far:

Thank you G-d for... “

...the food and the money to buy it with and tip the server (This wasn't and isn't always true for me.)

...being able to hear the screaming child at the next table (A couple of my friends are having hearing problems and would probably love to be able to hear that child, at least for the first minute or two.)

...getting home without hurting myself or anyone else or damaging any property; and without anyone else damaging me or my property (I've been in a couple of car accidents lately, one that was and one that wasn't my fault. Always happy every time I drive somewhere and nothing happens except I get where I am going.)

...keeping my home safe when I am here and when I am not here (It hasn't happened lately, but several places I've lived have been broken into. The worst part isn't that they take your stuff. The worst part is they take away your sense of security inside your own home.)

I have a long, looong way to go on the road to being more observant. And I know that the letter of the Law matters. I can honestly say I am sincerely working to learn more of the letter of the Law.

But, in the meanwhile, I also think G-d knows my intent – to express gratitude for this amazing world I live in and all the gifts I have been given... which is to say pretty much everything. I think G-d understands and accepts all expressions of gratitude however, and in whatever language, expressed.

And I think that the expression and the intent will help motivate me to learn more.

For this day, this hour, this minute... I think, I truly hope, that's enough.