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Now and Next: Intentions and Reflections from a Difficult Week

Friends,

Today this country marks Veterans Day, honoring all those who fought and those who fell serving this nation.  Veterans Day was declared in 1954, renaming an existing day of remembrance known as Armistice Day which marked the moment in which the “Great World War,” as it was then still known, came to an end: 11am on 11/11, 1918.

Today we honor the brave. We pause to remember the heavy price paid by individuals and nations for warfare, standing together to ponder what’s ahead and what will be demanded of each and every one of us in the face of new challenges. Today we vow to defend the values that we cherish most.

6375333Shortly after the Great War, a Jewish mystic living in Poland penned a manifesto, opening with the first line from the Genesis saga that will be chanted in synagogues this coming Sabbath. The saga is the story of Abraham and his family, leaving behind the familiar homeland on a journey to a new reality, home and destiny.
 
Hillel Zeitlin, living in Warsaw, interpreted the call to Abraham in Genesis as a call to each and every one of us. I will teach this text this Saturday at Lab/Shul’s monthly Shabbat AM worship and community event, this month held at Judson Memorial Church, with friends from Christian and Muslim communities joining us to pray and talk together. I want to share with you all a fragment of this teaching as an invitation for a conversation about now and about next:
 
Lech Lecha: Go, go to your self, leave behind your father’s house, your land, your birth place, travel to the place that I will show (Genesis 12)
 
The Divine voice calls to each human being at all times and in every place: Leave, mortal one, please leave. Leave the desires by which you are clinging to matter, leave the habits that keep you tethered to a world limited by the senses. Leave your pride, your family heritage, your superstitions and old convictions, leave and seek yourself an ancient land, a higher land, a land of heavens. Where will you seek it? Where will you find it? Go and search…
 
“Go from your land.” This verse bangs on your head like a hammer! Not just every heart’s desire and stubbornness but every belief and opinion by which most humans live must be rejected!
 
For what are most people’s beliefs and opinions? People believe that their country is completely unique and all should be done to ensure its success and survival. They believe that for the homeland’s sake everything is permitted – brothers’ blood is spilled for this supposed good of patriotism…
 
‘From your homeland’ – Even those who are free of patriotism cannot detach themselves from the slavery of Nationalism. The sense of Nationalism attracts one with illusory cords until it is all one sees. If one’s nation is convinced of some faulty opinions and viewpoints – the individual will stick to the same ones. If one’s nation controls other people, governs them fiercely, conquering and breaking them, one thinks it is a sacred duty to participate in this national task.
 
Then, the Divine word comes again to the human: GO… cling only to what is good and sacred in your nation, but not to its ego – not to its desire to conquer, not to the hunger for power.
 
‘To the land that I will show you’ – What is the main goal of the divine soul? To seek the absolute, divine, good. It is impossible for the soul to seek this good while immersed in pseudo-good, which is what seems good to most people but not to those who sit in the world’s shadow, the dwellers of the mist, the seekers of truth.
 
… This verse, told to Abraham, is told constantly to all dwellers of this earth, but their eyes and ears are shut. The divine voice penetrates the entire space of the world and still most are deaf to it, only few unique ones are gifted with the ears that hear, so that they will hear and listen, listen and think, think and know, know and do.”
 
Hillel Zeitlin, Inside the Orchard of Kabbala and Chassidut (translation by Amichai Lau-Lavie)
 
Today and in the days ahead we are invited, called upon, to come together and commit ourselves to the greater good. As Zeitlin writes, so many of us forget the bigger picture and the purpose that we have to live up to, as we each take part in making this life meaningful and better for ourselves and for each other. Like Abraham, we each are called upon to seek our truth. There are prices to pay for this journey, like each journey, so it’s best to not go at it alone.
 
As a first step I invite us all to make time for face to face conversations in the days ahead.
 
I, personally, don’t want to watch the news or be glued to screens and updates. But I don’t want to go hide in a cave either. I want to share and care and be there with you and with otheres. I want to retreat, to focus, to grieve, and to dream. Big.
 
Thank you for taking the time to read this. I know that I’ve certainly found some comfort in the words that wise and broken hearted people have been sharing with the world. But I want to invite you, once you’ve read this, to shut down your screen and go and have a talk with someone. Take the time to really talk about what’s on your minds and hearts.

What we now need are honest conversations about our values, our fears, our hopes and our intentions.

Time for action, protest, and whatever else is needed to protect the safety, dignity, and human rights of everybody in this country is coming, and very soon. But as we digest the shift that has engulfed us I invite us to prioritize the time and place for simply letting us hear each other with deep listening, patience, and respect.

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I got the call to focus on these kind of local conversations in the middle of Columbus Ohio late on election night. I had left the group of activists and volunteers glued to the screen with increasingly long faces and headed to the backyard. It was quiet there, and softly raining under the big trees. Some folks came out too, to weep, to smoke, to sit in silence.
 
Tracy came outside and sought me out. “Rabbi,” she said, “I need to pray, and I need it now, and I need you to help me.”
 
So we stood there in the backyard facing each other, Tracy and I, holding each other’s hands for a few long minutes in silence. We had walked together door to door that very morning in Columbus urging folks to vote, and got into some heated conversations with some very angry people.
 

But now we stood there, eye to eye – a black female Brooklyn born poet and teacher and a white gay Jewish guy – both sobbing. “This now is the truth,” Tracy said. “Just you and me here, looking at each other, honestly, and pained, and present. This is truth, and this is victory and all those screaming screens with numbers and projections are not truth, even if it’s reality.”

 

Of all the things from that long night, I cherish that one moment. I take Tracy’s truth, our backyard circle, Zeitlin’s words and those of Genesis as a radical reminder on this day: Honor the path, be in the present, and boldly go beyond the familiar, nostalgic and sometimes toxic public fabric of reality. We are invited, called, and instructed to engage in sacred conversations with each other, finding truth in our stories and refusing to get sucked into the frenzy, panic, and rage.

“There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in,” wrote Leonard Cohen, sadly just departed. Let’s use this crack to light each other up. I to I.
 
I invite us to engage in these respectful patient reflections with each other and our kids and our neighbors this coming weekend and the days ahead. I invite us to commit to our journey and be part of the bigger vision of a sacred life worth living and fighting for.
 
Just one more word of thanks to a tired warrior, a veteran of so many fights for rights and justice: Hillary, thank you. I hope you rest this weekend and are allowed to grieve, to rage and to hold your head high. You worked so hard for all of us and we are deeply grateful. I know I certainly am.
 
Onwards on the road, my friends.
 
Shabbat Shalom
– Amichai
 

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