Sanctuary Shattered

 

Last week, The Community Synagogue gathered, as did many other congregations, for National Refugee Shabbat. The weekend’s sponsor was HIAS, a historically Jewish organization that today is one of the nine agencies with which the federal government contracts for refugee resettlement in the U.S.

At our Friday evening Shabbat service, we wove the liturgy between songs evoking the themes of welcoming the stranger and of being welcomed as the stranger. One of the most powerful was “Sanctuary,” written by Julie Silver:

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Cheese, Gromit!

You know how there are some phrases that stick in your head for years? Some words that trigger an immediate association in your mind? One of those for me is the word cheese. Anytime a sentence ends with that word, I can’t help but think to add: “Gromit!”

I owe this to the many times I watched the original episodes of Wallace & Gromit as a kid.  It’s a British claymation series of short films about the hapless, bachelor inventor Wallace and his clever, faithful dog Gromit. The show is filled with puns and dry humor, ridiculous excursions and silly twists. It’s sometimes predictable, but it’s always delightful.

Wallace and Gromit love cheese; their ability (or inability) to sit down to cheese and crackers with tea is what motivates a lot of the action. In “A Grand Day Out,” the very first episode (which came out in 1989––it’s as old as I am!), Wallace and Gromit run out of cheese in their cupboard. So, naturally, they build a rocket ship in their basement and fly to the moon. Everyone knows the moon is made of cheese! It turns out to taste like no cheese they’ve ever had before––not even Wensleydale.

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Everyone knows the moon is made of cheese! From “A Grand Day Out.”

It’s Wallace saying “Cheese, Gromit!” that I will always remember.

Ari and I have been married and living together for more than a year now. He’s given me a number of quizzical looks when he’s heard me add “Gromit!” to sentences ending with the word cheese. We needed to watch Wallace & Gromit together, so he’d know what all the fuss is about.

We watched Wallace and Gromit land on the moon and meet a strange robot, who sees someone skiing in one of their travel magazines and subsequently tries to stow away on the rocket so it can go skiing on earth itself. We watched “The Wrong Trousers” (1993), in which a criminal penguin hijacks the automatic walking device Wallace bought to take Gromit around the block in order to rob a museum. And we watched “A Close Shave” (1995), when Wallace falls in love with Wendolene, who turns out to be involved––with her own dog, Preston––in a sheep heist.

These were the three episodes I knew as a kid. Another, “A Matter of Loaf and Death,” had apparently come out in 2010 and was included in Amazon Prime’s collection. We watched that, too. It was still charming, but it wasn’t nearly as good––mostly because its plot was too similar to “A Close Shave.” But I wonder if I would have liked the fourth episode more had it occupied a place in my heart like the others.

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A fromagerie at the Jean-Talon Market in Montreal. I wish I’d known enough French to ask for a sample.

Nostalgia is a powerful thing. I thoroughly enjoyed sharing this beloved part of my childhood with Ari, and watching the show again transported me back to the feeling of viewing it on repeat as a kid. It’s like Ben Bag Bag used to say: “Turn it and turn it, since everything is in it. And in it should you look, and grow old and be worn in it” (Pirkei Avot 5:22).

Okay it’s not quite like rereading Torah year after year. But returning to Wallace & Gromit was indeed a trip down memory lane, a return to something from much earlier in my life after I’d grown older. It was also chance to notice new things about the series that I’d missed as a kid––things like punny newspaper headlines and smart cultural references in titles of books Gromit reads.

Revisiting the films alongside someone watching them for the first time revealed even more. Not until Ari pointed it out did I realize just how poorly Wallace treats Gromit. Gromit does most of the work: standing in as a sawhorse for rocket ship construction, operating a contraption that gets Wallace dressed and fed in the morning, and piloting a motorcycle-sidecar-turned-airplane to help rescue stolen sheep. Gromit is always the one who saves the day, but he rarely receives more than an appreciative pat on the head from Wallace, the one who usually gets them into trouble in the first place. It’s amazing that Gromit puts up with him at all!

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Endless samples are the best part of shopping at our local North Shore Farms. They once had a Wensleydale with orange and chocolate.

Recently, I’ve fallen in love with David Whyte’s Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday WordsI’m slowly making my way through his meditations––written in the most poetic of prose––on words such as anger, friendship, and solace. And as I am reflecting on my experience revisiting Wallace & Gromit, Whyte’s concluding sentence on nostalgia feels resonant:

Nostalgia is not an immersion in the past, nostalgia is the first annunciation that the past as we know it is coming to an end. (p. 152)

I cued up Wallace & Gromit with Ari to bring a bit of my past into the present, but doing so reveals how much has changed. Today, my current viewing partner is my husband, not my parents, and we watch it now via online streaming instead of VHS. I’m now living in New York, not Ohio, and I spend my days at work instead of school. And there are the new things to notice about Wallace & Gromit itself.

I’m glad to have rewatched the films. I’m sure I’ll do it again sometime; they are still good fun. I’m also grateful, at the risk of sounding extra sappy, for the unexpected moment of reflection in which I am remembering a childhood delight while recognizing the blessings of today.

Now I think I’ll fetch myself a cup of tea. And maybe some cheese.

Holiday of Play

Delivered at The Community Synagogue (Port Washington, New York), on Shabbat Chol HaMoed Sukkot (Friday, September 28, 2018).


A few years ago, on a Sunday morning, I sat in a coffee shop hard at work on a paper for rabbinical school. I don’t recall the assignment, but I do remember something that happened while I was there.

I happened to be sitting at one end of a long, communal table. As I attempted to focus on my writing, a father and his son, probably around two years old, sat down at the other end. The dad sipped his coffee; the boy munched on piece of pumpkin bread.

Then, over the morning ambiance of milk frothers and background chatter, I heard the father ask his son, “What do you want to do today?”

The boy looked up from his snack and, with a smile, said, “Play!”

How wise was that two-year-old! And how I wished to shut my laptop, forget my finals, and go find my own way to play that day.

 

This Shabbat, we find ourselves in the midst of our most playful holiday: Sukkot. This week we build outdoor temporary shelters from natural materials, we eat in them as if they are our homes, and we shake the Lulav and Etrog.

In other words, we build stuff with sticks we found outside, we have make-believe dinner parties, and we wave some fruit in the air. Sounds like play to me!

We call Sukkot Z’man Simchateinu, the time of our joy. More than for any other time of the year, our tradition invites us on Sukkot to be happy. And it couldn’t come a moment too soon: just days after Yom Kippur. That is the most solemn day of the year for many of us, when we contemplate our own mortality, consider our wrongs, and remember those who have died. These are all important parts of life, but Sukkot comes along to remind us that playfulness and happiness are important, too.

According to Maimonides’ laws about the lulav, one who gets in the way of their own happiness on Sukkot is liable for punishment. That’s how great a mitzvah joy is on Sukkot.[1]

Dr. Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play, says play is what lifts us out of the mundane parts of our everyday lives. He compares play to oxygen: it’s all around us, but it goes unappreciated until it’s missing.[2]

Sukkot is a breath of fresh air. Let’s make Judaism playful.

 

There are three elements of play, as described by Stuart Brown, that I want to focus on: that it’s done for its own sake, that it engages our whole bodies, and that it takes imagination. Sukkot hits all three.

 

Play is for its own sake. There’s no end goal when we build a sukkah or shake the lulav outside the context of their own game. We do these things just so that we can do them.

Throughout my life, I have tried my hand at a number of instruments. I started piano lessons when I was four years old, played the recorder for elementary school music classes, took up the clarinet for 6thgrade band, and bought a mandolin in college. But none of those grabbed me like the guitar.

I grew up listening to my dad play guitar, and I decided to learn to play in 7thgrade. I took a class at school and started practicing at home from my dad’s copy of Great Songs of the 60’s—the first song I learned was “The 59thStreet Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)” by Simon and Garfunkle. The next summer, I went to Jewish camp for the first time and saw the songleaders up in front, leading us in prayer and singing. I fantasized about being a camp songleader. So I bought a copy of the camp songbook and brought it home.

I spent the next years playing through the books in the basement, teaching myself the chords to Bob Dylan as much as to the Barechu. The goal of becoming a songleader stayed in my mind, but it faded. I just fell in love with the vibrations of the guitar, the way its sound could fill a room and swallow me up, the way I could make a full chord of six notes sound with a single strum. Slowly, I taught myself to sing along.

Nowadays, I don’t play guitar for its own sake as much as I used to; sometimes it feels draining rather than energizing. But the most joyful experiences of prayer I have today, whether I’m leading or following someone else’s lead, transport me back to that feeling of playing guitar in the basement. It’s purely for its own sake, swallowing me up in sound.

Play is a break from the goal-oriented stance we take in so much of our lives. It’s not about meeting a deadline or performing perfectly. It’s about messing around and messing up. It’s about forgetting ourselves and sometimes our worries—getting lost in the experience.

There’s no such thing as a perfect sukkah, no way to “win” at Sukkot. We build a sukkah and shake the lulav for their own sakes—just to see what it’s like.

 

Play engages our whole bodies. A lot of Jewish life involves minimal movement; but not Sukkot. We literally shake our sillies out with the lulav, and we put our right foot in (and left foot and hands and heads) to the middle of the sukkah like the Hokey Pokey. We use our bodies; that’s what it’s all about.

In his book called, appropriately, Play, Dr. Brown describes the life stages of the sea squirt. Sea squirts are ugly creatures, he says, which start out looking like tadpoles and end up resembling tubular sponges or worms. They are, however, one of our most ancient relative on the great family tree; in their tadpole-like stage, they approximate what the first chordates may have looked like 550 million years ago.

In their youth, sea squirts have very basic spinal cords and brain-like cell clusters. They spend their early days exploring the ocean and growing. But once the sea squirt becomes an adult, it attaches itself permanently to a rock or the hull of a boat. The passing current brings along enough nutrients for it to survive. Brown calls it the couch potato of the sea. It no longer needs its brain to explore its surroundings, so its brain dissolves.[3]

Brown says that physical movement of any sort is a way to bypass our mental defenses and jumpstart play.[4] “Motion is perhaps the most basic form of play.” Just think of the smile an infant shines when she pulls herself up on her feet for the first time. The sea squirt “has a brain only when it is moving through time and space… We are alive when we are physically moving.”[5]

That’s why we dance at parties and why we play sports. For me, it’s 20 to 30 minutes of yoga every morning. A little bit of movement puts some play back into our lives.

Sukkot is just the invitation we need to let ourselves do something goofy, not worrying about what we look like. When we move, we feel a little more free.

 

Play takes imagination. When we enter the sukkah, one of the things we’re supposed to do is imagine what it was like for our spiritual ancestors, the Israelites, wandering in the wilderness between leaving Egypt and arriving to the promised land. The book of Leviticus says this is precisely why weare supposed to eat our meals in our sukkot for a whole week.[6] It’s reminiscent of the central invitation of Passover: that each of us comes to see ourselves as if we, ourselves, went out of Egypt.

There’s another, lesser known custom of Sukkot that even more explicitly requires our imagination. It’s called Ushpizin, which means “honored guests.” According to mystical tradition, certain biblical heroes join us in our sukkahs each day of the holiday: people like Abraham and Sarah; Moses, Aaron, and Miriam; King David; the prophet Deborah. Some people even leave an empty chair or two around the table in their Sukkah for this very purpose. The point is to invite these honored guests in, to imagine them among us, and to feel blessed by their presence.

In that vein, I’d like us to engage our imaginative faculties right now. This is a version of an exercise I did on Tuesday with our teens in POWTY and MPOW—a riff on the custom of Ushpizin. I am going to invite each of us to close our eyes, and think of people we want to invite into our personal sukkot, people whose presence we want to bless us.

Who is someone from the Torah or a famous Jew you want to invite into your sukkah?

Who is one of your ancestors or a member of your family you want to invite into your sukkah?

Who is someone you admire or see as a role model, who you want to invite into your sukkah?

Finally, what is one positive quality you bring into the sukkah, with which your presence blesses others?

You can open your eyes.

When we activate our imaginations, we allow our own needs and desires to come forth, unmediated by others’ expectations. Dr. Brown describes it this way: “[With] a pinch of pleasure, it integrates our deep physiological, emotional, and cognitive capacities. And quite without knowing it, we grow. We harmonize the influences within us. Where we may have felt pulled in one direction by the heart and another direction by the head, play can allow us to find a balanced course or a third way.”[7]

Imagination is healing. Imagination leads to growth. Sukkot invites us to step outside our typical modes of thinking and imagine new paths forward.

 

That little boy at the coffee shop was on to something. How different would our lives be if we asked ourselves every morning, “How am I going to play today?”

Sukkot has weird and strange rituals. It forces us outside our normal, guarded ways of doing things and says to us, “Come on, play outside for a little while. It’s a mitzvah!”

Sukkot may be z’man simchateinu, the special time of our joy, but we do it—and ourselves—a disservice if we relegate playfulness in Judaism to this holiday alone. The three aspects of play Sukkot cultivates extend beyond the walls of the sukkah. Here are three corresponding ways Sukkot gives us permission to be playful every time we gather for prayer or Jewish practice:

  1. Do it for its own sake. Don’t worry about messing up or getting the words right. Try it out and see what happens, and feel free to improvise.
  2. Put some body into it. Let yourself clap or sway with the music. Close your eyes and listen or sing along. Forget about looking goofy, and lose yourself in the moment.
  3. Use your imagination. The words of our prayers, as they’re written in the book, are just the starting point. Let yourself wonder about what lies beyond, behind, or within them. The prayers are poetry; we should read them as metaphor. And just-as-real-a-prayer is whatever bubbles up inside our hearts and minds along the way.

Yom Kippur says life is short. Sukkot says life should be playful. Let’s embrace the invitation to explore, to embody, to imagine. Let’s make Judaism playful.

Moadim l’simchah. May this be a time of joy.

Shabbat shalom.


[1]Mishneh TorahHilchot Lulav 8:15

[2]Brown, Stuart L., and Christopher C. Vaughan. Play How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. Avery, 2010. Page 6.

[3]Ibid. 47-48

[4]Ibid.150

[5]Ibid. 214

[6]Leviticus 23:42-43

[7]Ibid.104

In the Days of Awe

It’s quite a busy season of writing and prayer and reflection!

In lieu of a typical post during the Ten Days of Awe, I’d like to share the sermons I am offering at The Community Synagogue during our Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur services. Regularly scheduled programming will resume soon!

May we all be written and sealed for a good year ahead.

Seeing and Being Seen – RH Evening 5779 – Rabbi Sam Pollak

Olam Hesed Yibaneh – RH Day 2 5779 – Rabbi Sam Pollak

For All the Wrong Reasons – Kol Nidrei 5779 – Rabbi Sam Pollak

What is God? What is Love?

The other day, Ari turned to me and said, “Do you ever think we should just retire the word God and substitute something else, something a little less tired? Let’s all pray to Thaff instead!”

It’s not a bad suggestion. Most of us carry a lot of baggage around the word God, particularly as we live in a Christian context. I know that as soon as I start to contemplate God, for instance, I first have to do some mental gymnastics to push aside the old man with a white beard. Only then can I engage in any sort of more sophisticated theological discussion; as Heschel taught, conventional notions and mental clichés hinder our experience of the divine (God in Search of Man, p. 46). Swapping in the unconventional word Thaff as the primary label would at least bypass my automatic association between that particular word and image.

But it wouldn’t solve the fundamental problem of talking about God: language only gets us so far.

Cat’s Cradle, the Kurt Vonnegut novel I recently read at Ari’s recommendation, hits on the same problem. In it, the narrator, John, seeks out the history of the late Dr. Felix Hoenikker, one of the “fathers” of the atomic bomb. When he ventures into the lab where Dr. Hoenikker once conducted his research, he hears from the director’s assistant, Miss Naomi Faust, that one of the main things of interest to Dr. Hoenikker was truth. But Miss Faust is not convinced that could be enough. Chapter 26 (pp. 54-55) of the book tells the conversation that ensues between John and Miss Faust:

26. What God Is

“Did you ever talk to Dr. Hoenikker?” I asked Miss Faust.
“Oh, certainly. I talked to him a lot.”
“Do any conversations stick in your mind?”
“There was one where he bet I couldn’t tell him anything that was absolutely true. So I said to him, ‘God is love.’ ”
“And what did he say?”
“He said, ‘What is God? What is love?’ ”
“Um.”
“But God really is love, you know,” said Miss Faust, “no matter what Dr. Hoenikker said.”

This short, brilliant chapter illustrates the problem with insisting on definitions for God––or Thaff or any other word used to denote the divine (including divine itself). We then have to define those words, too, and we end up with an infinite regress. That’s because words have meaning in relation to one another, not because of some correspondence with the way the world “really” is (thank you, Richard Rorty). To say God is love is to beg the question: what, then, is love?

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My passable attempt at Cat’s Cradle. As Dr. Hoenikker’s son Newt Hoenikker says, “See the cat? See the cradle?”

But that doesn’t mean Miss Faust is foolish. I think what people mean when they insist that God is love is that they have a strong desire to live in a world that is fundamentally good. That’s not an unreasonable wish.

Still, it has its limits. There are times when the “usual” descriptions of God fail, and we need new ones. That’s the lesson Ari and my friend Eliana Light teaches in her ELI talk. When Eliana’s father died when she was 18, she could no longer abide the theology many of us are taught at some point in our lives: that God is a force of goodness who knows all and whose hand guides things in the world toward the good. She realized there was a gulf between the God she had learned about and the God she was experiencing. Recognizing that it’s a gulf many of us face, she coined the idea of the God Gap. Naming it allows us to address it.

To bridge the God Gap, Eliana suggests we turn to the plethora of names Jewish tradition offers for God. Shekhinah, the Most High (Elyon), the Omnipresent (Hamakom), Healer of shattered hearts, the patient One, the Maker of peace, the One whose face is hidden…to name a few. It’s not to say that any of these “is” God, certainly not to the exclusion of any other––mistaking one aspect of divinity for the whole is the kind of idolatry Kabbalists call kitzutz ba-neti’ot (cutting the shoots). Rather, it’s to say that we experience or seek to experience different aspects of God in different situations.

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“God was in this place and I did not know” (or) Jacob’s Ladder. Ari is much better at this than me.

I like Eliana’s teaching. The problem with the word God is not merely that it is tired; it’s that it’s also vague. I’m in favor of retiring it, but not of replacing it with another catch-all label––even one as novel as Thaff. I’d rather be more precise, finding the name that fits the moment while remembering that name’s contextuality. It’s a little more effort, but it also frees us of the burden of shoving the bearded old guy out of the way before we really get down to work.

Listening to Inanimate Objects

I am an avid podcast listener, and I am enraptured by a new production: Everything is Alive. In each episode, host Ian Chillag interviews an inanimate object about its hopes and experiences, and in the process he reveals its personhood.

Okay, he doesn’t really talk to inanimate objects; his listeners must suspend some of their disbelief. In preparation for each episode, Chillag engages an actor whom he supplies with some background research on the subject. That actor then creates their particular object’s character, and the episode proceeds unscripted from there. The result is something that really does seem like a typical radio interview.

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Photo by Breakingpic on Pexels.com.

In the first episode, Chillag speaks with a can of store-brand cola named Louis, who, in the course of his shelf life, repeatedly came close to fulfilling his destiny: being enjoyed by a thirsty human. Now, Louis is reaching his printed expiration date, and while he wonders if he will ever get to experience what it’s like to be drunk, he also wonders if he will cease to exist, should the drinking occur. Is Louis merely a metal body that happens to contain soda, or is that which fills him with effervescence integral to his nature?

The second episode (the only other one at the time of this writing) is about a Brooklyn lamppost called Maeve. She spends her on-off cycles (i.e. days) observing the curious actions of the humans around her, and she yearns to be noticed and appreciated—as opposed to noticed and cursed when someone walks into her and knocks their head. Maeve wants to be the star of a movie, just like Gene Kelly’s lamppost in Singin’ in the Rain. She also wants to see the other side of Park Slope, because she is intrigued by what happens to the humans when they turn the corner and disappear from her sight.

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Left: Maeve’s idol. Right: some human.

I love so many things about Everything is Alive. The episodes are funny and heartfelt, and they tell stories in unique ways. They teach me about some strange historical trivia, like the radium-laced soda once marketed to American consumers and the mysterious disappearance of the original Singin’ in the Rain lamppost. What impresses me most, though, is how each interview invites me to relate to inanimate items not as objects, but as subjects.

This is the same invitation I find in the poetry of Mary Oliver. Consider the following poem, in which she imagines the subjects that make up the natural world:

Some Things, Say the Wise Ones (Why I Wake Early, p. 57)

Some things, say the wise ones who know everything,
are not living. I say,
you live your life your way and leave me alone.

I have talked with the faint clouds in the sky when they
are afraid of being left behind; I have said, Hurry, Hurry!
and they have said: Thank you, we are hurrying.

About cows, and starfish, and roses, there is no
argument. They die, after all.

But water is a question, so many living things in it,
but what is it, itself, living or not? Oh, gleaming

generosity, how can they write you out?

As I think this I am sitting on the sand beside
the harbor. I am holding in my hand
small pieces of granite, pyrite, schist.
Each one, just now, so thoroughly asleep.

The sand is the part of going to the beach I like the least, because of how it gets in my pockets and sticks to my wet feet. But my heart softens towards it when I think of its grains as being asleep. They are, of course, capable of so much; our built environment is quite literally made of those tiny rocks. When they sleep, do they dream of what they might become, perhaps fused into exquisite stained glass? Or are they content where they are, in the diverse community of minerals bordering the great living sea?

These are the questions that arise when we see the world as full of subjects.

As Martin Buber taught in I and Thou, we are accustomed to relating to other entities in what he calls “I-It” relationships. In an I-It relationship, I, the subject, either treat the other entity as an object usable for my own purposes or simply experience it, through my senses, as something distinct from myself. This holds for items as well as for other people. It’s not exactly a “bad” thing, but a natural way of relating to other entities. In fact, constructing I-It relationships with the world is how we differentiate a sense of self, Buber says. We know who we are in response to all the “not-us” things we experience.

But the higher connection is the “I-You” relationship, in which we relate to the other as an equal subject. The I-You relationship is not about considering ways to benefit from one other; rather, it is a contentless experience. One subject blurs into the other, boundaries disappear, and the other ceases to be “other.” It is a feeling, often momentary, of pure connection.

What is the famous example Martin Buber uses to illustrate the various kinds of I-It relations and the singular I-You connection? A tree. I think Mary Oliver would have been his friend.

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Connecting with the Grandfather Tree, a 250-year old live oak on Jekyll Island, Georgia.

Maybe Ian Chillag would have too. What he is now doing in Everything is Alive for inanimate, manufactured objects, Mary Oliver does in her poetry for the natural world: inviting us to see the world as full of subjects, to imagine all those inner lives. It’s good practice for imagining the inner lives of other sentient beings, too, which cultivates our capacity for treating all creatures with dignity.

And now there’s a new episode of Everything is Alive in my podcast feed. Time to hear the thoughts of a pillow named Dennis.