Tuesday, December 13, 2016

God was in this place...

Elaine Clayton is an adult who became a Bat Mitzvah in our congregation this past Shabbat. This is her D'var Torah in word and visual art. The images are full size paintings she brought to the chapel. She writes and illustrates children's books also including books by Jane Smiley (Pulitzer Prize winning author) and Gregory Maguire (who wrote "Wicked") and is also the author of Making Marks: Discover the Art of Intuitive Drawing.

Kol Hakavod, Elaine!

December 10, 2016

God Was in This Place: Dreaming of Jacob 

by Elaine Clayton  

And so Jacob said, “Goodbye Everyone”
And went to Haran
Copyright Elaine Clayton 2016
To wander and wonder
In the wilderness
And I saw him there
“Jacob,” I called out, “How are you?”
“Oh, so-so,” he said in his endearing way
“Why only so-so?” I asked him
Jacob answered, “I didn’t sleep well. For one thing
My pillow was as hard as a rock, and I mean as hard as a rock.”
“I’m sorry, Jacob,” I said, “Did you remember any of your dreams?
And Jacob said, “No. No, I don’t dream. I don’t remember my dreams.”

It is Shabbat morning in the year 5777
I wake up feeling a longing and sadness
Thank, God, it was only a bad dream
I whisper to myself
Of course Jacob had a dream
And of course Jacob remembered his dream
Its in Torah!
I say to myself
Jacob knew God was in this place
That place
Because where he rested his head
He slept and where he slept
He dreamt
And where we dream, God is

Half asleep, I still hear Jacob talking to me
He says, “I was only kidding about not dreaming!
You can do Freud, or Jung
You can say you ate something
Or saw a movie
That’s why you dreamed what you did
But keep your dreams close by”
He says
“The Talmud states that a dream not interpreted
Is akin to an unopened letter
Some dreams are messages of love
Some are bills
Some are junk mail
Some are invitations
Some are solicitations
Some are citations
All of them are letters
Given to be opened and read
Signed, sealed, delivered
They’re yours”
He says

“They’re your fears
Your desires and impressions
For ordinary time spent
And extraordinary actions
All of your comings and goings
Nobody can dream as you do”
He says
And I say
But some dreams we share
Like the one about going to work with no pants on
Or arriving late to the most important class
The one about flying
The one about monsters
Or lovers
Or things we are glad did not really happen

On the way to the temple on I-95
Jacob sits silently in the passenger seat
I say, Jacob, I am getting to know you
To learn from you
What are you thinking about?
“Just keep your eyes on the road,”
He says

Still sleepy at the temple
I whisper the blessing
And kiss the tallit on its embroidered hem
Swirl it like the world around me
And let it surround me
I clasp it over my shoulders as though
I just emerged from the sea
And close it over my heart

I am wrapped in
Where the sea meets the sky
Where the tides of life
Crash at my feet
Soaking into the dust of the earth

I see the lines on the tallit
Like the waves at sea
And like the rungs on Jacob’s Ladder
I see the waves coming
I sense the desire to
Capture them
To reach for them
Swimming or pulling myself upward
I go rung to rung
Feeling waves of emotion

Waves of despair
Waves of anger
Waves of joy
Waves of days come and gone
Waves of mercy
Waves of grief
Waves of love and sorrow
Waves of gratitude
And lessons learned

Reciting the Shema
The tallit settles like clouds
On my shoulders
Keeping my dreams
Upon me softly
A witness to the dream-letter opened
By Jacob

Chanting V’ahavta
I gaze at the heart of my own days
And close my eyes
Through waves of doubt and hope
And wonder if a ladder will
Appear for me
As it did for

I play with the tassels
613 twists and turns
In the dreams of God
His for us, and ours for Him
Wave after wave
Dream after dream
With or without me
The dreams keep arriving
And disappearing

Our dreams of peace
For our children
Our dreams of justice
For us all
Our dreams of our place in the world
As crazy as the world is
We still dream
God is One

The Ark opens
My heart dares to open also
The prayer chants take us
High and low
Ascending and descending
On the Jacob’s Ladder
within each of us
And what is this ladder within?
Is it the Tree of Life?
Is it the twisting ladder of my DNA?
Is it the way I hold emotions

In my crown
At my mind’s eye
In my throat
In my heart
In my stomach?

I feel myself soar and dip
Slipping and gripping
Through the prayers
A malach is with me
A messenger
On each rung
As I rise and fall

Closing my eyes
During Kaddish
I see Jacob in Haran again
He is wandering expectantly in the darkening twilight
He places his head on
ha-evan, the stone
His pillow
I take off my tallit
And wrap it around him
As he gently falls asleep
Under the stars
To dream
To come to know things
To wake soon and wrestle
With his new name:

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Now what?

The following was originally published as a Facebook post by Timothy Snyder, the Housum Professor of History at Yale University and author of Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning.

My Friend Josh Mason Barkin tweeted the link to Quartz, a blog that ran the piece. It ran there under the title "A Yale history professor’s powerful, 20-point guide to defending democracy under a Trump presidency." I have re-titled it in the interest of not using a headline to pour gasoline on a fire. I do believe he is right on all of these items. (#21 might be to maintain a valid passport for every member of your family.) I also believe we have to be very timely in declaring that the sky is falling. To soon, and we are chicken little. Too late and we can only hope to be survivors.

The video at the top of the page is a lecture by Professor Snyder called "What Can European History Teach Us About Trump’s America?" It was delivered at Yale on December 5, 2016.

A Yale history professor’s powerful,
20-point guide to defending democracy

Americans are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience. Now is a good time to do so. Here are twenty lessons from the twentieth century, adapted to the circumstances of today:

1. Do not obey in advance.

Much of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then start to do it without being asked. You’ve already done this, haven’t you? Stop. Anticipatory obedience teaches authorities what is possible and accelerates unfreedom.

2. Defend an institution.

Defend an institution. Follow the courts or the media, or a court or a newspaper. Do not speak of “our institutions” unless you are making them yours by acting on their behalf. Institutions don’t protect themselves. They go down like dominoes unless each is defended from the beginning.

3. Recall professional ethics.
When the leaders of state set a negative example, professional commitments to just practice become much more important. It is hard to break a rule-of-law state without lawyers, and it is hard to have show trials without judges.

4. When listening to politicians, distinguish certain words.

Look out for the expansive use of “terrorism” and “extremism.” Be alive to the fatal notions of “exception” and “emergency.” Be angry about the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary.

5. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives.
When the terrorist attack comes, remember that all authoritarians at all times either await or plan such events in order to consolidate power. Think of the Reichstag fire. The sudden disaster that requires the end of the balance of power, the end of opposition parties, and so on, is the oldest trick in the Hitlerian book. Don’t fall for it.

6. Be kind to our language.

Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does. Think up your own way of speaking, even if only to convey that thing you think everyone is saying. (Don’t use the internet before bed. Charge your gadgets away from your bedroom, and read.) What to read? Perhaps The Power of the Powerless by Václav Havel, 1984 by George Orwell, The Captive Mind by Czesław Milosz, The Rebel by Albert Camus, The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, or Nothing is True and Everything is Possible by Peter Pomerantsev.

7. Stand out.

Someone has to. It is easy, in words and deeds, to follow along. It can feel strange to do or say something different. But without that unease, there is no freedom. And the moment you set an example, the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow.

8. Believe in truth.
To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.

9. Investigate.

Figure things out for yourself. Spend more time with long articles. Subsidize investigative journalism by subscribing to print media. Realize that some of what is on your screen is there to harm you. Learn about sites that investigate foreign propaganda pushes.

10. Practice corporeal politics.

Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen. Get outside. Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people. Make new friends and march with them.

11. Make eye contact and small talk.
This is not just polite. It is a way to stay in touch with your surroundings, break down unnecessary social barriers, and come to understand whom you should and should not trust. If we enter a culture of denunciation, you will want to know the psychological landscape of your daily life.

12. Take responsibility for the face of the world.
Notice the swastikas and the other signs of hate. Do not look away and do not get used to them. Remove them yourself and set an example for others to do so.

13. Hinder the one-party state.

The parties that took over states were once something else. They exploited a historical moment to make political life impossible for their rivals. Vote in local and state elections while you can.

14. Give regularly to good causes, if you can.

Pick a charity and set up autopay. Then you will know that you have made a free choice that is supporting civil society helping others doing something good.

15. Establish a private life.
Nastier rulers will use what they know about you to push you around. Scrub your computer of malware. Remember that email is skywriting. Consider using alternative forms of the internet, or simply using it less. Have personal exchanges in person. For the same reason, resolve any legal trouble. Authoritarianism works as a blackmail state, looking for the hook on which to hang you. Try not to have too many hooks.

16. Learn from others in other countries.
Keep up your friendships abroad, or make new friends abroad. The present difficulties here are an element of a general trend. And no country is going to find a solution by itself. Make sure you and your family have passports.

17. Watch out for the paramilitaries.

When the men with guns who have always claimed to be against the system start wearing uniforms and marching around with torches and pictures of a Leader, the end is nigh. When the pro-Leader paramilitary and the official police and military intermingle, the game is over.

18. Be reflective if you must be armed.
If you carry a weapon in public service, God bless you and keep you. But know that evils of the past involved policemen and soldiers finding themselves, one day, doing irregular things. Be ready to say no. (If you do not know what this means, contact the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and ask about training in professional ethics.)

19. Be as courageous as you can.
If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die in unfreedom.

20. Be a patriot.
The incoming president is not. Set a good example of what America means for the generations to come. They will need it.