Pining for Egypt -- A Preview of Post-Covid Life?

Pining for Egypt -- Or, Do I have to Leave My House Post-Covid?

It's Passover, the holiday where we remember and celebrate the liberation of the Hebrews from Egyptian slavery thousands of years ago. The holiday is one of my favorites. As a writer, how could it not be? The primary mitzvah/obligation of the 8-day holiday is to tell the story of the Exodus to your children -- and anyone else stuck at the Seder table who has to listen to you. 

Saturday, instead of a seder, we watched The Prince of Egypt for the quintillionth time. I was particularly struck this year by the final scene. Moses, standing on Mt Sinai, the two tablets with the 10 Commandments in his arms, overlooking the assembled masses -- blurred in the distance. THE END. Roll credits. Yay!

At our delayed, outdoor Seder last night, the story in the Haggadah ended similarly: "...the sea parted and our people passed through on dry land to freedom." DAYENU! Pass the brisket. Yay!


Orson Welles famously said, "If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story." 

I'd be hard pressed to find a better example of this axiom playing out in real life than Passover. You want a happy ending? Stop after the Sea and skip the next 2.5 books of the Torah. You can come back for the very end, but it's not a happy end for everyone, not even our once triumphant hero, Moses. 

End it with the euphoria of freedom gained. Stop before you get to the trials, tribulations, and tragedies of living free.

If the Prince of Egypt had continued just a few more seconds, Moses would have seen the people come into focus, their dancing bodies circling the golden calf, built in their panic when he left them for 40 days and 40 nights. We would have seen him smash the tablets, burn the golden calf, grind it into powder, scatter it in the water, and force the people to drink it. 

If the Haggadah had gone on just a few more verses, we'd know that barely a month after crossing the sea, the Hebrews started mumbling and grumbling against Moses and Aaron. “If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt. ... For you have brought us out into this wilderness to starve this whole congregation to death.” (Exodus 16:3) They BEGGED to go back to Egypt.

Those stopping points don't make for happy endings, to be sure, but maybe they make for better, more instructive endings. Especially this year, as we come closer to our liberation from Covid. 

Will we look back on these times with nostalgia and yearning? Will we turn our anger on those who worked to secure our freedom because it did not come fast enough or meet up to our fantastical visions? 

It seems ludicrous on its face, doesn't it? 

Go back!?      Are you kidding?        Get me out of here as fast as you can! 

We've spent a year thinking about the after-Covid life. Imagining how it will be. The plans we will make. The things we will accomplish. Oh, the places we will go! 

Are we only thinking as far ahead as the next stopping place that creates a happy ending, spurred on by the endless parade of vaccine selfies and photos of vaccination cards?

When Hebrew school kids start studying Exodus beyond what we tell on Passover, they are shocked(!) to find out about the mumbling, grumbling, complaining, and rebelling. 

When people are adults when they learn the unabridged Exodus for the first time, they are not surprised at all. They know where the story goes after "We're free!" The hard part is just ahead. 

The kids see their own lives as lacking freedom and control. Ask them what freedom looks like: No bed times! Pizza every meal! Unlimited video games! No curfews! No homework!

They will not say: Working full-time! No 12-week summer vacation! Paying bills! Traffic! Never enough sleep! Buying those $60 video games! 

Yes, when we get past this pandemic, we will be free to do a great many things we want to do now and can't. This kid in me is still anticipating the Live Music! Coffee Shops! Restaurant Meals with Friends! Shmying! Oh, I need a good shmy*.

But we will again be obligated to a great many things we never wanted to do. Commuting to work. Dressing up for work. Sitting in traffic. Running hours of errands after work before you can get home. Being overscheduled and defaulting to "I'm sooo busy!" Only seeing your busy teenage kids in passing. 

After the Exodus, the Israelites wandered for 40 years before reaching the Promised land. You can see it as punishment for their rebellions, or you can reframe it to say they needed that time to learn the rules of being free. When to work, when to rest. When, where, and how to worship. How to set aside some of what they own for the widow, the orphan. How to seek justice and be ethical in your diet. How to cultivate and maintain freedom.

We are at an advantage. 

We were not born into this pandemic.

We can look back into our own lives and see how we lived.

Look back to the year before the Year of Covid. When we were free, how did we enslave ourselves? When we were free, did we see ourselves as such? When we were free, did we see how others were not? 

Covid took away many of our freedoms. What did it free us from? And can we maintain that newfound freedom going forward?

Can we set our expectations and intentions so we don't look back from 2022's Passover and say, "Wow, that really would have been a happy ending if we had stopped in April 2021"? 

When we write our stories, picking where to stop is easy. 

When we live them, not so much. 

This story will not stop at "Yippie! We're vaccinated! We're free!" Though I would not be surprised if that's how we tell it to later generations.

In all likelihood, any happy ending is further down the road than we can see. Not right in front of us, but not yet behind us. We can't stop now. This is not The End, my friend. 

Maybe we can rest here a bit, in the in-between space, with freedom close ahead and constriction behind. Look back and forth and see both through lens of the other. 

Then we can gather our things -- carefully choosing what to bring and what to leave behind -- and get moving. 

The Year of No Photos

At work, they asked for photos from all of us to share during a virtual slide show that runs in the online Teams room between meetings. It's really a great idea - many of us have yet to meet in person. 

I have no photos to submit.

Looking back over the past year's worth of images in my phone, the great majority are screenshots -- tweets, memes, a screenshot of a song I was listening to on Spotify to share with a friend. 

And pictures of smoke and fire from our summer of living under two constant threats to our air -- fire and Covid.

But if I keep scrolling back... and back and back and back and back...

There you are. 

My friends. 

My family. 

My tribe. 

And we are dancing and singing and rocking to the most amazing music in the most amazing places. 

We are praying and learning (and teaching) Torah. We are grasping hands as we bless the bread.

We are in restaurants and bars trying each other's food and sharing sips of cocktails.

We are hugging and standing close and squishing together to get into the selfie.

We are on crowded planes and sitting on beaches.

We are huddled in the kitchen, cooking together and passing down family recipes.

We are marking the milestones of life -- graduations, birthdays, b'nei mitzvahs, new jobs, retirement.

We are cheering on our teams from behind first base, and toasting champions in sports bars.

We are living. 

And we will again.

Let It Be So | כן יהי רצון


For the Many Tomorrows to Come: Kindness, Singing, and Love

Below are what I posted on election day and the day after election day, 2016. The election day post, "Tomorrow I Will" was posted at 11 pm, after we knew the results. Not much sleep followed that post, and by the morning I had cobbled together some thoughts for my children.

I'm in a unique position among many of my Facebook friends. My feed is not an echo chamber of fellow progressives who agree with my view of what reality is or what is possible.  I watch Fox News and listen to right-wing talk radio. Hannity, Limbaugh, Shapiro, Ingraham, Owens, Levin, Savage, Beck, Jones, QAnon... I have had dozens of conversations with Trump supporters. 

When progressives expressed our fears for what a Trump administration could (and did) mean, we were met with gleeful dismissals: FUCK YOUR FEELINGS! and people rejoicing over LIBERAL TEARS and  OWNING THE LIBS.  We were SNOWFLAKES and LIBTARDS.  

All while the Trump administration rolled back legal protections for people I love, put into action capricious and cruel immigration policies, promised plans that never appeared (infrastructure, health care), ignored and mishandled a pandemic response, called the free press the enemy of the people, and spewed playground-level insult rhetoric from the official accounts of our leaders.  

So I am not surprised when Biden's gracious outreach in his victory speech is being met with a big ol "Yeah, right!" and hostility from Trump supporters. It's how they reacted, so it's how they expect us to react.  

My celebration of the Biden/Harris victory is not rooted in hatred of the other side.  I believe that progressive, inclusive policies will better the lives of all 300 million Americans. I will fight for your healthcare, your civil rights, and your freedom without asking who you voted for. 

I am not out to "own" Trump supporters or rejoice in their pain as they have rejoiced in ours. When you lead with compassion, you never say 'fuck your feelings'.

I have tried to spend as many tomorrows since 2016 (now yesterdays) being kind, loving, and singing over these past four years. 

There are many tomorrows to go -- may the kindness, singing, and love only grow. 

The Beatles and Bo

2020 “Speaking Words of Wisdom”

When I was writing this, I kept having visions of Father Mackenzie, writing the words of a sermon that no one would hear. 

So, thank you for lending me your years, letting me sing you a song, and not standing up and walking out on me when I sang out of tune. 

I get by with a little help from my chaverim.

Todah Rabah.


When I find myself in times of trouble, words of Torah speak to me. Speaking words of wisdom, “Set them free.

I read the news today. 
Oh boy.

A tyrant is in charge of the highest office in the land. Repeated calls from the people to do the right thing have been ignored. Day after day alone on the hill,
The man with the foolish grin is keeping perfectly still,
Nobody seems to like him
They can tell what he wants to do.

His courtiers, with one or two exceptions, are standing fast in their support. His heart is hardened and, despite repeated pleas, warnings of impending disaster, and the destruction of his nation, he refuses to yield. An enslaved nation waits.

The tyrant? Pharaoh.

The people? Israel, the God wrestlers.

One has a hardened, stubborn heart. The other just wants to go live in the desert and worship their God and live in peace. The back and forth has been going on for 7 plagues now.

You say yes.
I say no.
You say stop
I say go
I say high
You say low
You say Why, and I say “I don’t know!”

7 plagues upon the Egyptians, and still Pharaoh will not yield.

Go again, God tells Moses. 

I’ve made his heart hard and stubborn and heavy and strong, but go. 

Moses is tired. It’s been a hard day’s night, and I’ve been working like a dog. It’s been a hard days’ night. God. I should be sleeping like a log. 

Weren’t you the one calling out into the night, God reminds him. I heard you: Help! I need somebody. Help! Not just anybody. And here I am. Not just here, actually. Here, there and everywhere!

Yes, My sweet Lord
I really want to see you
Really want to be with you
Really want to see you Lord
But it takes so long, my Lord

Go, God tells him again. 

Moses, the prince raised in the palace, the recently-appointed spokesperson for the people, goes up to give his once-upon-a-time brother one more chance:

For though we may be parted there is
Still a chance that he will see
There will be an answer
Kein yehi

The Beatles were all about love. In fact, they used the word “love” 613 times in their lyrics. It’s no magical mystery -- 613 repetitions of love. 613 mitzvot in the Torah. A gift from God with a note attached saying, “with love from me to you”. Mitzvot which we do -- freely -- with love in our hearts. 

God may as well have said: Love me? Do. 
You know I love you. I’ll always be true. 
So if you love me. Do. 

In this story, no one is free -- not the people, not Moses, not Pharaoh. 

But Moses knows the value of freedom, the innate desire for freedom, and so he goes to the Pharaoh.

He say, "I know you, you know me"

You say you want a revolution? Pharaoh scoffs.
Well, you know. We all want to change the world
Don't you know that you can count me out

Two of Pharaoh's own advisers plead with him. Egypt is already destroyed! We’ve suffered 7 plagues. How long will you let this go on? There’s gonna be more! Locusts! That’s what the man said. But will he listen to what the man said?

Pharaoh seems to waver. He tells Moses to go! Picture yourself on a boat on a the Nile, with tangerine trees and marmalade skies.

Moses says, Thanks Pharaoh, but before I punch my ticket to ride, just so you know, we’re taking our young. And the old. And the cows, the goats, the lambs. The Walrus. The octopus and his garden.

Oh, Pharaoh says. I’ve got to admit, It’s getting better. It’s getting better all the time! You know what? You can only take the young. Everything else stays.

You’re a mean Mr Mustard, says Moses!  

Pharaoh tosses them out. Get back! Get back! Get back to where you once belonged.

Bring on the locusts. They covered the face of the whole earth and there remained not any green thing, either tree or herb of the strawberry fields, forever. 

Pharaoh is shook. He summons Aaron and Moses to him once more.

Can we Come Together on this?

Life is very short and there’s no time for fussing and fighting my friend. 

I get it, Moses says. I used to be an angry young man. Hiding my head in the sand. God gave me the word, I finally heard. I'm doing the best that I can.

But then God hardened Pharaoh's heart. Or did he? Whether or not he had a little push from God, Pharaoh was well down the long and winding road to a stubborn, heavy heart on his own. I won’t back down. I will stand my ground. You can stand me up at the gates of hell but I won’t back down. 

The Thirst for power. 

You let too much of that into your heart and it will harden and calcify beyond repair.

Our rabbis taught mitzvah goreret mitzvah. Good leads to good. Love leads to love. Love is all and love is everyone. It is knowing, it is knowing...

But they also taught, averah goreret averah. Evil leads to evil. At what point could Pharaoh have gone back? After the first cruelty? The seventh? The thousandth? That boy won't be happy Till he's seen you cry 

And it really doesn’t matter to Pharaoh.
If I’m wrong, I’m right…
Where I belong, I’m right! 
Nothing’s gonna change my world!

But the heart of love, Moses’s heart, keeps trying: 
Think of what you're saying
You can get it wrong and still you think that it's alright
Think of what I'm saying
We can work it out and get it straight, or say goodnight

And Pharaoh says, Goodnight.

His hardened heart secures the 9th plague. Number 9. Number 9. Number 9: Three days and nights of Darkness so thick you could feel it. Here, there, and everywhere. 

Except in the Jewish neighborhood, where they sang: And though the night is fraught with darkness, there is still a light that shines on me. 
Shine until tomorrow. 
Let it be!

On the fourth day, in the light, Moses tries one last time.
When you were young and your heart was an open book
You used to say live and let live
(you know you did, you know you did you know you did)

But I guess Living is easy with eyes closed
Misunderstanding all you see

The rabbis talk about how God writes the words of Torah on our hearts. Why on and not in? Because we’re collecting those words, like love notes from our sweethearts, for when our heart breaks open, all the words of love fall into the empty space and heal us. 

All you need is love, love. 
Love is all you need.

But hardened heart can’t break, and a hardened heart can’t be healed.

The people of Egypt paid the price for their leader’s inability to try to see it my way. Love’s way. With the final plague, An entire nation lost its first born. They're going to carry that weight -- the weight of a hardened heart -- for a long time.

And Pharaoh? Did he look back? Wishing for yesterday, when all his troubles seemed so far away? 

Or did his heart harden even more, his only pity reserved for himself? The world is treating me bad... Misery! Leave me here in misery. 

In the end, it’s not the job of the downtrodden to soothe the bruised ego of the tyrant. Moses and Aaron had better things to do and went to deliver the message to the people: 

Yisrael, singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise

The Weeping Prophet of El Paso

This week's haftarah portion, a selection from the prophets, is from Jeremiah. Often described as the "Weeping Prophet," Jeremiah lived in Jerusalem in the 6th century BCE.

He preached through the reign of five kings, and he is said to have authored the books of Kings and Lamentations, in addition to his own book or prophecies.

He is often compared to Moses, and his son Ezekiel followed in the family business: scolding the Jewish people. From his name we get the English word jeremiad, "a cautionary or angry harangue."

AJ Heschel saw Jeremiah as a middle-man of sorts, writing,
"Standing before the people he pleaded for God;
Standing before God he pleaded for his people."

In this week's verses, there is rebuke and warning, and great disappointment on the part of God.

וָאָבִ֤יא אֶתְכֶם֙ אֶל־אֶ֣רֶץ הַכַּרְמֶ֔ל לֶאֱכֹ֥ל פִּרְיָ֖הּ וְטוּבָ֑הּ וַתָּבֹ֙אוּ֙ וַתְּטַמְּא֣וּ אֶת־אַרְצִ֔י וְנַחֲלָתִ֥י שַׂמְתֶּ֖ם לְתוֹעֵבָֽה׃
I brought you to this country of farm land 
To enjoy its fruit and its bounty; 
But you came and defiled My land, 
You made My possession abhorrent.
Jeremiah 2:7

I imagine Jeremiah standing in the paring lot
of a mall in El Paso, surveying a
country of farm land defiled.

Jeremiah counts the victims
20 dead
26 injured
blood in the aisles of a WalMart
          news helicopters covering the

"To enjoy its fruit and its bounty,"
he quotes himself.
Is this how they farm the land?
If this is what they are reaping,
What kind of seeds did they sow?

Perennial fear
Annual hatred
Succulent violence
Climbing vines of supremacy
Deeply rooted suspicion
Shade-hardy racism

And the land is defiled
and abhorrent
before its creator.

Standing before the people
Jeremiah pleads

Standing before God
Jeremiah pleads

For the Kid with a Gun


You don't know me. I'm just some random adult on the internet who is thinking about you today.

I am wondering if you will be inspired by the school shooting yesterday in Highlands Ranch.

I am wondering if you have spent today on the Internet, looking up the details of Columbine, Sandy Hook, Parkland, Arapahoe and imagining yourself with the gun, wandering through the hallways, shooting your fellow students, your teachers, your principal.

I am wondering how the fantasy ends for you -- shot down in a blaze of glory? Wrestled to the ground and walked out in cuffs? Blasting off your own head with your final round?

I am wondering if you go to my child's school.

I am wondering if your parents own handguns or rifles they don't secure properly. And I am wondering if they taught you how to handle them safely as a child and are trusting you to remember those lessons, so you don't shoot yourself or a friend accidentally, tragically.

I am wondering if they every imagined that you would shoot someone on purpose, and that learning how to handle a gun safely wasn't enough.

I am wondering if you have made a plan you're just waiting to carry out. I am wondering if there is a sign or signal you are waiting for.

I am wondering if you have tried to tell your friends and family about your intentions and have they missed the cues.

I am wondering if any of us really know the signs to look for.

I am wondering if there are any signs at all.

I am wondering if you idolize previous mass shooters, see their 'fans' on the Internet and think, I want that for myself.

I am wondering if you walked up to me right now, would I sense anything was off? Would I be able to tell murderous intention from teenage sulky reticence?

I am wondering if you are cruel. I am wondering if you are violent. I am wondering if this will be the first time you injure another human being.

I am wondering whether you're broadcasting your intent on the dark corners of the internet and are people are cheering you on, encouraging you.

I am wondering if your parents know about your struggles and have done everything in their power to help.

I am wondering again if they've locked up their guns.

I am wondering if you understand mortality on more than a superficial level.

I am wondering if we have failed to teach you the value of one human life.

I am wondering if we have failed to teach you how to be kind, and how to accept kindness.

I am wondering if we have simply never said clearly enough that hurting other people is not OK.

I am wondering when you learned, and when you forgot, the lesson about treating others as you would want to be treated.

I am wondering what else on earth could satisfy your blood lust and enable you to solve your problem a different way.

I am wondering if we glamorize villains to our own detriment. I am wondering how many docu-series, documentaries, and 'tortured hero' shows you have watched.

I am wondering if I should have any sympathy for you at all.

I am wondering if you can be stopped.

I am wondering again if you go to my child's school.

Dear Parents (II)

Shalom Religious School Families,

It has been exactly six months since I wrote a very similar letter to you on a somewhat similar Saturday night. Once again, we come out of Shabbat reeling from news of another shooting at a Jewish institution -- this time the Altman Family Chabad Community Center in Poway, California.

Today was not only Shabbat, a day of peace, it was also the final day of Passover, the holiday where we teach our children a story of terrible oppression and a miraculous journey to freedom. We are all wrestling with and trying to process this latest shooting. The early news is that the killer, a 19-year-old male, hated Jews and espoused some of the most harmful and ludicrous conspiracy theories about us.

One person lost her life and at least three people were injured. These congregants had come to synagogue for the exact same reasons we do: to study, to pray, to observe the ending of a holiday, to say Kaddish and observe Yizkor, the Jewish memorial service.

Some have physical wounds to recover from, and we will pray for the complete healing of the victims:
We will mourn the dead.
We will come together as a community to grieve, question, and try to wrap our minds around yet another violent attack on Jews.
We will fight against all forms of anti-Semitism and not shy away because the task is hard. As our sages taught,
      It is not your duty to complete the work.
      Not up to you to finish it.
      But neither are you free to desist from it. (Pirke Avot 2:20,21)

My continuing task is to create a supportive and welcoming Jewish community for you and your children. In that spirit, Religious School will open tomorrow morning as usual at 9:00 am. Please come inside with your children for the all-school shira, which this week includes a special performance by the kids in our PreK/B'resheet program.

... Remind your children that the adults who work at Har Shalom care about their safety. We do this in all sorts of ways: having buildings that lock, having an adult with them at all times, having a security guard onsite, etc. Their teachers will review safety procedures with them -- not to alarm, but to reassure.

A Space for Parents
Please take the time to escort your children into the sanctuary tomorrow and join us for our beginning-of-the-day shira (song) and tefillah (prayer) sessions. We will sing songs of peace and hope, and songs that remind us of our place in healing the world.

After the children are dismissed, we will have time to gather as parents before the community-wide service at 10:00am. We will have an opportunity to draw strength and ideas from one another, and we can discuss how to talk about these events with our children.

Letting the Children Lead
I know not every child will be aware of the attack in Poway, especially the littlest ones. In the classrooms, the teachers will let the children be the guides. There will be space for them to express their feelings and share concerns, and the teachers will be a calm, reassuring presence.

If you have any questions about tomorrow's schedule, security, or just want to let me know something about your children in particular in advance of school, just reply to this email..

You and your children are dear to me, and I look forward to seeing you at school, where we will learn, pray, sing, and study the ways of peace together. May we be strengthened by our kehilah kedosha, our holy community.



Haftarah-telling, 5779. Hannah demands some R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

Dear Sarah, Mother of Isaac, Wife of Abraham,

Chana here. It’s our day again – Rosh Hashanah, Take 1. The rabbis must have had something special in mind when they added two of the most famous barren women in the Torah to have their stories told on one of the highest traffic days in the synagogue. 

Did you ever think they’d be telling our stories, Sarah? My son? Yes. But me?

We lived 800 years apart, you and I, and I was around 3,000 years before any of the people in this room were born. But our stories are all here, together, now. (Your family’s story continues tomorrow, but you may not want to read ahead. At the very least, if Isaac asks to go on a hike to Mount Moriah with his Dad, say no.)

We are all here in conversation together. We barren women. We women of hope. You. Rivkah. Rachel. Me. Michal. And Samson’s Mother (Z’llppunith – such a name. No wonder we all just know her as “Samson’s Mom”.) But she had a name, and she had a story.

I am not a prayerful woman, Sarah. My approach was always a little more “Are you there, God? It’s Me, Chanah” than pious devotion. And unlike you, I don’t get angels as regular visitors to my home.

We come to Shiloh, to the temple, this ridiculous family of mine. My husband, Elkanah, always offers the right sacrifices, enough for that wretched second wife of his, Peninah, and all  of their children. I get one portion. I deserve a little more R-E-S-P-E-C-T. You’d better Think, I wanted to tell Elkanah. Think about what you’re tryin to do to me.

Peninah’s worth increases with every child she has following her skirts.

My worth withers as each season passes. And all the while Elkanah is telling me I am his favorite. Do you know what he says to me, Sarah?

“Am I not more devoted to you than ten sons?”

Well, yes. And… no.

And Peninah… year after year she taunts me, reminding me of what I can never forget.

I can usually save face, but this year…this year my heart was overflowing with anger, bitterness, and anguish. I was distraught, Sarah. I could not sleep. I could not eat. I could not stop crying. And all the while Elkanah asking me, why? Why? Why?

My heart broke--it broke into more pieces than I knew it had.

So I left the feast and came to the temple alone.

I can admit this to you, Sarah – I did not have faith, but I had hope, a desperate hope that drew from me an unimaginable promise. I made a deal, a bargain. If God would remember me, notice me, and give me a son, I would dedicate the boy’s life to the service of the Lord. I would have promised anything in that moment. Anything to make the pain stop.

There will come a time, Sarah, when prayers are written down, and people will follow along to someone else’s words. I doubt I could have read anything in that moment.
No, that prayer was ripped from me like a terrible sickness. I threw myself onto the Temple steps and let my despair rush out of me. 
Fall on your knees.

Oh Sarah, you should have seen the priest Eli as he approached me. He thought I was drunk! Can you imagine?

"How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? "’Sober up!".

I told him, “I am not drunk! I have been pouring out my heart, my anguish, my distress.”

He didn’t apologize, but he gave me a little blessing as he gently escorted me out. "…may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of Him."

At that moment I had no way of knowing if my prayer had been heard, but it had been said. God didn’t answer right away. I had no surety, Sarah, but… maybe even if the gates of prayer are shut, the gates of tears are not.

Elkanah’s ritualistic sacrifice had given me no comfort.
The festive meal no joy.

But the moment of desperation, pleading to be remembered, to be noticed…getting all that ugliness out was like a purge.

I got up off that floor, dried my tears, and went home with Elkanah, Peninah, and her children.

By the time the next yearly pilgrimage came around I was a mother of a son, Samuel (Shmuley to me), whose name means: "I asked the LORD for him."

As soon as I saw him, though, I was sure I’d made a terrible mistake by dedicating him to Temple service. How could I have made such a vow? How would I keep it?

Every year when we returned to the Tabernacle, Elkanah would ask, “So? Are you bringing the boy this year?” and every year I’d put him off.

He’s not old enough.

He doesn’t know his aleph-bet!

He’s not ready.

The truth was, I was not ready. But I did it, Sarah. I kept my vow. I brought him to the temple, and I left him there.

We all do it, don’t we?
We mothers.
We fathers.
At some point we all release our children.

Oh, it’s not always as dramatic as dropping them off for a lifetime of temple service…sometimes it’s the first day of preschool, the bus stop for summer camp, the end of the driveway, an airport gate, a college dorm room. 

We all do it. We open the circle of our embrace and let them walk out into the world. And we stand there, arms wide, waiting for them to step back in.

You did let Isaac go on his trip up the mountain with Abraham. It may have butchered your heart, but you waved good-bye, and you watched them go.

They all go. They all find other men and women to love; they leave our houses and make homes of their own. We give them to the universe and we hope, and maybe pray, that the universe treats them kindly.

Parenthood can make anyone turn to prayer:

Lord, help me get through this day!

Lord, keep her safe…

Misheberach…Please, God, heal him.

So many of the stories we tell from this bimah end in the middle. (Most good stories do.) 

You died offstage, Sarah.  There are 54 parshas in the Torah. One is named after a woman, and you die in the first verse.

After my triumphant declaration of victory at the end of this haftarah, I’m never heard from again. 

My first prayer was the anguish of my heart
My second was a record of my joy, my thanks, my conquest!

It’s not how I’d wanted to be quoted, honestly, and if I could go back and change it, I would.

There’s a little too much bragging.

It’s very self-serving, all “I gloat over my enemies… the barren woman bears seven; the mother of many is forlorn…”

That barb for Peninah was unnecessary. I know you understand the sentiment, Sarah.

It’s so easy to say yes to that ugly impulse inside us, to want to win.
To want someone else to lose.
I understand Peninah much better now.
I’m betting you “get” Hagar as well.

When we felt unnoticed, we were cruel.

When we were blessed, we forgot to be kind.

It was a miserable journey home after leaving Samuel at the temple for the first time. My arms ached with the weight of his absence, feeling his phantom body in my embrace.

We returned to Shiloh every year, and as time passed I had more children to shlep along.

And every year…. Every Year… I’d bring Samuel a new set of robes, guessing how much he’d have grown.

Before I knew it, he was taller than me.
He’d tease me, but I secretly enjoyed looking up to my son, the leader, the prophet, the musician, the artist.

I hope he does not judge me too harshly for my vow, my promise made for him without his permission. It was my words, but his life.

He went on to become a big deal, a real macher. 

He was the last of the judges, and he appointed the first of the kings.  He fought with his elders, and he was a warrior who protected the holy ark, and the covenant inside.

He was gifted with prophecy, but he was always my baby, my little Shmuley. 

My first born. 

My gift from the universe and back to it… the prayer of my heart.

Hollow Words

for Ben

After Sandy Hook, we told you that you are safe. There are over 33,000 elementary schools in the United States, and there has been a shooting at one.

After you heard about Aurora, we told you that you are safe. Millions of people go to the movies every year, safely. Meanwhile we check emergency exits reflexively during films and plan where to run.

After Orlando, we told you that you are safe.

After Paris, we told you that you are safe.

After Las Vegas, we told you that you are safe.

We told you it was OK to go to concerts and festivals and large outdoor gatherings. We played the numbers game.

It’s more likely that you will
  • Get hit by a car
  • Crash a car
  • Get run over by a bus
  • Fall down the stairs and break your neck
  • Be hit by lightning
  • Lose a fight to a wild animal in the woods

We tried to comfort you and assuage your fear by listing other ways you could die.

It’s more likely you will live to 75 and get to know your grandchildren than get shot by someone in your school, a movie, theater, a club, a concert, your workplace, a synagogue.

As you grow older and you listen to the news and your friends and follow social media, where shootings are turned into memes, our “new math” doesn’t diminish your fear. You see the error in the calculus.

Videos of kids huddled in classrooms look like you and your friends. That could be me, you think.

You drill and drill and drill and lock down and lock down and practice for what we tell you is an infinitesimally small probability.

And when you march in protest, someone puts a sticker on your chest that says #AmINext?

And it scares you.

And it scares me.

You walk up to me with that sticker on you and all I can see is that you might be next and that playing the odds is no way to play this game when the house always wins.

My 16 year old son is scared to go to school.

It’s been 19 years since Columbine.

It’s been 5 years since Sandy Hook.

It’s been too many years that we have been trying to keep the barrage of mass shootings from entering his world. The shootings just kept coming, and his access to the media and the news and his friends kept bringing them into his world, into his mind, and into his psyche.

And his mother keeps telling him that he is safe.

And he says, Mom you keep saying that.

You keep saying that.

You. Keep. Saying. That.

You know who else said that Mom?

Every parent of every kid who died in Florida and Vegas and Paris and San Bernadino and that church in Texas and 100 other places that I can’t even name.

Their moms said to them, you are safe. It won’t happen here.

What do you have to say to me now, Mom?

What do you have to say?

8 Songs of Chanukah: 2. Put Your Lights On

Hey now, all you sinners
Put your lights on, put your lights on
Hey now, all you lovers
Put your lights on, put your lights on

Hey now, all you killers
Put your lights on, put your lights on
Hey now, all you children
Leave your lights on, better leave your lights on

8 Songs for Chanukkah: 1. Scarlet Begonias

(Disclaimer: I haven't blogged a lot lately. To be completely transparent, taking on the role of the Religious School Director at my synagogue has made me overthink my posts, and there are many many drafts which I just haven't had the courage to publish. So let me say at the outset, any opinion expressed on Western Jew is mine, mine alone, and it not endorsed, approved, proofread, or in any other way associated officially with the Congregation Har Shalom Religious School. It's all me.)

8 Songs for Chanukkah: 1. Scarlet Begonias by The Grateful Dead.

Tonight is the first night of Chanukkah, the Jewish holiday which commemorates the victory of the Maccabean warriors over an anti-Jewish king (Antiochus) and his army, who had desecrated the holy temple in Jerusalem in 167 BCE and did their best to force Jews to give up practicing Judaism. Antiochus made it illegal to observe Shabbat, study Torah, or even celebrate the new moon, which is how the Jews scheduled holy days.

It was a dark, dark time, but the Maccabees took up the fight, eventually defeating their oppressors and rededicating the Temple. As part of that dedication (the literal meaning of the word Chanukah) the menorah in the temple was re-lit, and just a little bit of oil miraculously lasted for 8 days. Imagine your nearly-dead phone battery lasting an entire day without a recharge!

Not a chill to the winter, but a nip to the air.

It's remarkable warm this winter in Colorado. But the early setting of the sun has not been delayed along with the cold temperature. These are dark, dark times. Darkness is one of those things you can only appreciate by knowing its opposite. Many of us felt a sense of lightness about America from 2008-2016.

  • Gay marriage legalized nationwide. 
  • The Affordable Care Act, if not perfect, acknowledged the health care gap in America. 
  • A bi-racial @POTUS. 
  • Three women on the Supreme Court. 
  • Intentional diversity in The Cabinet and among presidential appointees.
  • Increased visibility and acceptance of LGBTQ people. 
  • Justin Trudeau. 
  • Always Justin Trudeau.

That hopey-changey thing was actually working pretty well for me.

These past 12-and-a-half months have been like a never-ending descent into a bizarro America, where the light has not only faded, it has been purposely snuffed out, with glee and a sneer.

People in my community have been digging deep for ways to fight back against the wave of darkness. We snark on Facebook, we donate to every organization we can who is fighting the good fight, we stand on street corners, we text and email our representatives, and we vote in every election every time.

It's exhausting. And honestly, it doesn't feel like we're getting anywhere. It is literally and figuratively getting darker and and darker earlier and earlier every day.

It could be an illusion, but I might as well try, might as well try.

Chanukkah makes us do what perhaps we should be doing anyway -- seek the light. Tonight, the light is pretty small. We light just one candle, and if you haven't seen them, Chanukkah candles are pretty small as far as candles go. They stay lit for about 45 minutes or so, less if the wick is wonky. It's a short respite from darkness, but we should not discount it just because it's quick.

We can perhaps be accused of creating a temporary illusion of light on Chanukkah. But I fully support our absolute right to refuse to engage in the darkness for as long as the flame can hold out. I do it by shutting off the news, changing to my "cute animals only" Twitter feed, reading romance novels, going to see live music, and watching kind and gentle TV like the Great British Baking Show, where even the fiercest competitors are supportive of one another and every episode ends in a group hug. Lighting the menorah certainly fits into that category.

Seldom turns out the way it does in a song.

I wouldn't normally light any candles on a Tuesday night, and certainly not for 8 nights in a row. What an amazing power we have, to strike a match or push a button and create what Torah tells us God created with just words: Vayehi Or.

Let there be Light.

In the story of creation, darkness does not disappear when light is created. Instead, the light is separated from the dark, but they turn over and over and switch places in a never ending cycle, night becoming day and day becoming night. Darkness will always be there, but...

Once in a while you get shown the light, in the strangest of places if you look at it right.

Chanukkah is a strange little Jewish holiday. It's not mentioned in the Torah, or the Writings (Ketuvim), or the Prophets (Nevi'im). It's message of religious freedom, bringing light to darkness, and shining a light into the world is ancient, and timeless. Hag Sameach friends.

Watch this space tomorrow for Song #2.