Once a week, I have the privilege of being completely present. Once a week, I’m exactly where I need to be. Once a week I allow myself to notice my body, my breath, and my voice. Once a week I listen, and actually hear.
It’s Shabbat again. Thank G-d!
A week ago, it was January 20, 2017. I couldn’t believe what I was witnessing. I didn’t want to think about the inauguration. I wanted to deny its reality like I had been since November 9, 2016. I couldn’t hide from it even if I tried. I felt like someone was sitting on my chest. It was all I could think of and the exact, only thing I didn’t want to be thinking about. The terror was boiling up inside of me, and I wanted to cry. The mood was somber and quiet all around me, but I wanted to scream! I wanted to shout until everyone, until anyone, heard me say, “I feel scared. I feel alone.”
And then, the sun set and the horrible day faded into a somber, ominous night. It still felt quiet, except now, it was Shabbat. Regardless of the chaos or impending legislation, all around the world, Jewish people stopped their daily routines and gathered to sing psalms of joy and praise – to mark the ritual and literal separation from the work of our daily lives and the commandment of rest. It never ceases to amaze me how Shabbat connects us all! No matter where you are in the world or what tune you’re singing, when you’re celebrating Shabbat you’re home.
When I entered the sanctuary, the energy was hovering timidly above us instead of within us, but soon and easily we all fell gracefully into the familiar melody of Kabbalat Shabbat – the service that welcomes the Sabbath. It was the first experience that day that felt natural. The familiarity was like warmth from the sun shining on my face – something I didn’t know I was missing or needed until I felt it. During one prayer, the Shema, I realized that for the first time all day I could actually hear. I could hear the beauty of our voices rising together proclaiming G-d’s oneness. I could hear the dynamic clashes and cascades of our prayers. I realized that I was exhausted because I’d spent the entire day attempting to not hear, or, better yet, to hear only what I wanted to hear. The act of being fully present, and the ability to acknowledge what that type of inner peace felt like was a blessing in and of itself. I smiled inwardly and committed to hold in my mind that it is necessary to hear – to really hear. The Kabbalat Shabbat service was restorative; it had to be because I knew this was only the beginning!
Around this time in the Jewish year, I find myself reflecting on and finding guidance in Parsha Bo. This section of the Torah narrates the story of the Exodus – when the Jews were freed from Egypt and received G-d’s commandment from Moses to “remember, this day you were freed from Egypt by G-d to go to the land of milk and honey. Remember, this day, for all generations and honor Me…”
In my remarks at my Bat-Mitzvah, over 10 years ago, I examined this portion of Torah. I talked about how the Israelites followed Moses from Egypt to the wilderness without necessarily knowing their fate. They followed with a sense urgency, trust, and purpose – they marched toward liberation. I commented that their march from Egypt was the first of many historical marches to leave a lasting impression. Then, considering that my Bat-Mitzvah was on MLK Jr. Day weekend, I recollected the inspiration I personally derived from two tremendously courageous leaders from the Civil Rights Movement: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. These visionaries marched together in Selma in 1965. They reminded everyone that justice is at the center of G-d’s plans for the world. I explained that when reflecting on the experience in Selma, Rabbi Heschel proclaimed his, now iconic, statement, “I prayed with my feet.” He demonstrated that marching – protesting – is one of the greatest prayers of all. Rabbi Heschel’s sentiment about mobilizing and impacting change through prayer and action resonates with me deeply.
It’s important that I’m writing this nearly two weeks after MLK Jr. Day, and a week after the largest one-day protest in U.S. history – the Women’s Marches. It’s also International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the anniversary of the Jewish people’s liberation at Auschwitz, and the day the U.S. President (#NotMyPresident) signed an executive order that indefinitely suspends admissions for Syrian refugees and limits the flow of other refugees into the United States by instituting what the President has called “extreme vetting” of immigrants. Our history is filled with these stories of discrimination and vile hatred. These events remind us both of our past and our very near, unclear future. Consequently, our Jewish tradition tells us that we are obliged to recall each year these stories of our past, and retell these narratives from generation to generation (L’dor Vador) so we do not forget. This responsibility is as important now as it ever was! We cannot forget the massive blemishes of our past. We must use these lessons and our retellings to cultivate strength and energy so we can promote justice and fight to live in a world where “Never Again” truly means “Never Again” – for all people no matter what.
The fight for equity and justice will be absolutely exhausting. And, while our goals are clear, our journey is certainly unpredictable. Regardless, the necessity to show up however and as best you can is beyond evident!
I felt this recently during the Boston Women’s March. However just like Shabbat and amidst the exhaustion and various actions, I was overcome by an awesome feeling. I realized that in that moment, across the world, we were all marching together. I was surrounded by people! The forward momentum in my feet was propelled by the desire to advocate for equal rights, and the strength and support of those behind me and beside me corralling me forward. Our marching was fueled by energy and love. I could feel the urgency in my body, in my spirit, and in my soul. I marched, and sang, chanted, and stayed quiet because I believe that now and forever equality is worth it!
The Torah commands us “You shall love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18)” because in Judaism, we believe that all people are created in the image of G-d. One of the most important ways we show respect for G-d is by respecting ourselves. Conversely, when we disrespect each other, we’re showing disrespect for G-d. I know what it feels like to feel threatened. I know what it feels like to feel safe. Embodying v’ahavta l’reacha kamocha (loving your neighbor as yourself) requires the adoption of the mentality that we are ALL worth it. We, the Jews, were worth it when others came to our side and marched with us toward freedom. Now we must reciprocate that generosity. Across our various lived experiences and diverse identities, values, and choices, we must remember that it’s our obligation to walk beside folks who are different from us. As a queer, Jewish, woman I have to believe that our uniqueness, beauty, and strength makes each and every one of us worth fighting for. We must continue to fortify and rebuild our world with love for one another. I believe it’s the only material that’s strong enough to nourish and sustain our uncertain, fractured world.
It’s Shabbat again. Thank G-d!
And, just like last week, the blessings of Shabbat delivered me an absolutely necessary quiet and feeling of peace. Shabbat reminds me that “tonight we pause to catch our breath” and allows me to bask in this truth: “how wise is our tradition to command us to seek rest on Shabbat, and what joy it is for our souls to be refreshed.”
When I reached Shabbat, I felt calm. I was excited to join the crowd of new and old friends and to pray with all my energy for the hope of a better world. I prayed for healing and strength. I appreciated my community nearby and all over the world. I allowed myself do the work of my heart rather than attending to the fretting in my mind. With my whole body, I thrust myself into the service of Kabbalat Shabbat, and, for just a moment, I sensed what peace feels like.
P.s. I’ve been finding incredible peace and warmth trough music and community these past few days. Here are some of the tunes that have carried me through the last week:
- Joey Wisenberg & The Hadar Ensemble
- Hazon – Avodat Lev (Service of the Heart – a contemplative session of song and meditation)