The Life and Death and Life of Books

As a congregational rabbi, I am used to the ebbs and flows of time and ritual. Shabbat comes every week, the holidays cycle every year, there will always be births and deaths, weddings and b’nai mitzvah. But every so often an opportunity arises that a rabbi will participate in only once (maybe twice) in a career.

One is the dedication of a new synagogue, which I had the honor to plan and participate in during my first year at TBH, and my first year as a rabbi. That was an amazing experience to think about ritual and ceremony for something that happens very rarely in the life of a congregation, and to do it so early in my tenure was truly an emotional experience, and one that from the beginning deepened my relationship with the congregation.

Another was this past Thursday, as we gathered to bury our sacred texts. Jewish tradition dictates that sacred texts and ritual objects—prayerbooks, Torah books, tallits, etc.—that are no longer of use or in good condition should be set aside and buried. In this way we show honor to the divine, as many of these sacred texts have the name of God written in Hebrew, the sacred language. And we show honor to our tradition, as these books are the repositories of our sacred literature.

Since it is not an easy thing to open a gravesite to deposit books, we at TBH, as is common, stored our old books in a closet until there was enough to warrant a burial. (The Hebrew term for such a repository is a geniza.) This year it became clear that we had enough to bury. Over the years we had collected older editions of multiple prayerbooks we no longer used as a congregation, as well as books that were donated by individuals.

When we gathered for the burial, we had the opportunity to reflect on the fact that these sacred books carry both the traditions of our people the traditions of individuals and families. Some people contributed personal books that had been a part of their family history, or had individual meaning for them, and sharing stories and reading inscriptions.

I too contributed a personal copy of a prayerbook. During a break-in at TBH over a decade ago we experienced vandalism when books and pews in the sanctuary were overturned. One of the books was my personal copy of the siddur that I used on the bimah; it was tossed to the ground and its spine was broken. I had put it aside for eventual burial, and reflected on it as my first “rabbinic” prayerbook.

And some people reflected on how the books collected told a communal story as well. For one, the variety of prayerbooks collected tell the story of the Jewish people, as multiple denominations and generations of prayerbooks were represented, from Orthodox to Reconstructionist, from this country and from the Old World. And, as was commented on, the collection of books represented the history of this congregation, harking back to a time in which we had rotating styles of service using different prayerbooks each week on Shabbat.

The date on which we gathered was chosen for practical reasons—we wanted to wait until spring when we had a greater chance at better weather—but also to tie it into the Jewish calendar we did it on Rosh Chodesh Tammuz, the beginning of the new month of Tammuz. During the summer month of Tammuz, we mark the minor fast day of the 17th of Tammuz. In the Torah, in the story of Sinai, we read how when Moses descended from the mountain with the tablets of the 10 Commandments, he discovered the Israelites worshipping an idol. In his anger, he smashed the tablets on the ground. Later, after all was resolved, he returned to God to receive a new set of tablets. Tradition records that the day of the smashing of the tablets was the 17th of Tammuz.

Jewish tradition also teaches that both the older broken set of tablets and the newer whole set of tablets were kept in the Ark of the Covenant and accompanied the Israelites on their wanderings. Thus the Israelites carried with them both brokenness and wholeness, death and life, the past and the future.

So we took the time at the beginning of the month to lovingly bury our broken tablets—the books that in physical form do not serve us anymore. But we still carry them with us, the words live in other forms (sometimes even electronically now!) and will continue to guide us.

We treat our books who have come to the end of their life as we treat people when they reach the end of their lives: with respect, care, and love, graciously guiding them to a final resting place. When a loved one dies, we commit ourselves to keep their memory alive and incorporate the lessons they taught us into our lives. As we bury these books, we too recommit ourselves to Judaism and our sacred texts, incorporating Jewish traditions and teachings into our lives.

Burying our geniza reminds us that books have a lifespan, but the words themselves do not.

 

This Sunday, I am Fasting for Black Churches

This Sunday is the observance of the 17th of Tammuz. More than just a date on the calendar, it is a minor fast day in the Jewish tradition. [N.B.: Sunday is actually the 18th, but because the 17th falls on Shabbat, the fast is postponed one day.]

The day marks the beginning of a three week period of mourning that culminates with Tisha B’Av (the Ninth of Av), a day set aside to commemorate the destruction of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. Observed by mourning, fasting and abstinence, Tisha B’Av is a day to focus on the themes of destruction, collective loss and communal strife.

The 17th of Tammuz introduces these themes. While the Ninth of Av marks the ultimate destruction of the Temple, the 17th of Tammuz marks the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem that ultimately led to that destruction. Once that line of defense was broken, it was only a matter of time until the loss was complete; once the walls fell, the Temple’s fall was inevitable. So while Tisha B’Av is the major day of mourning, the three week period beginning Sunday is itself a period of mourning.

The 17th of Tammuz is called a minor fast day because it is a sunrise to sunset fast, unlike the major fast days of Tisha B’Av and Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement) which are sundown to sundown fasts. But the designation of “minor” could also describe its place in the consciousness of contemporary Jews. The day itself, much less the fast, is not widely observed.

And I will admit I too more honor the 17th of Tammuz in the breach rather than the observance (especially on those years that it falls on my birthday.) But lately it has taken on new meaning for me. Just as the fast on Yom Kippur gives us the opportunity to focus our spiritual energy inward on our own sins so that we are able to make atonement, so too do the fast days of the three weeks give us the opportunity to focus our spiritual energy outward on our communal sins so that we are able to make atonement.

And with that intention in mind, as we face the current news, this year on the 17th of Tammuz I am fasting for black

photo by Davie Hinshaw/AP
photo by Davie Hinshaw/AP

churches. This year, in light of the shootings at the Emanuel AME church in Charleston which took nine lives, I am fasting for racially motivated violence in our country. This year, in light of the series of church arsons over the past few weeks, I am fasting to acknowledge the communal sin of racial violence and injustice which continue to this day.

On this 17th of Tammuz, we Jews are mindful that there is no greater communal violation than the violation of sacred space. And as the walls of ancient Jerusalem were once violated, and now the walls of the contemporary black church are being violated.

Fasting is a means to an end, not an end in itself. It is an act that should motivate us to act. This morning I was on a conference call with over 400 faith leaders from many denominations, sponsored by Showing Up for Racial Justice, to talk about white solidarity in response to the violence directed towards black churches. It was an inspiring call to stand up and show up, to share resources and work together.

Fasting for churches this Sunday is not an official call to action, it is my personal kavannah (intention). I intend to do something initially practical, and donate the money I would have spent on food to a fund to help rebuild churches. But more than that, this fast will serve as another reminder and motivation for me that we have much work to do to rebuild that which has been, and continues to be, knocked down.

Only Prayers

There is an interesting passage in this week’s Torah portion, Mattot. We are coming to the end of the book of Numbers in our weekly Torah reading cycle, and the Israelites are poised on the eastern side of the Jordan river ready to enter into the promised land. Their years of wandering are over, they have come almost to the end of their journey. (Deutoronomy is essentially one long speech of Moses, in the narrative the Israelites stay put.)

At the end of this week’s reading, the heads of the tribe of Gad and Reuben come to Moses and the other leaders of the community with a request. They are cattle ranchers, and they noticed that the land they have just come to settle in, on the eastern side of the Jordan, is perfect for cattle raising. Is it possible, they ask, to be assigned this portion of the land as their territory? In other words, could they stay on this side of the Jordan and not enter the Promised Land with the rest of the Israelites?

Moses considers this request and agrees on one condition: they first enter into the land with the rest of the Israelites, and once the land is settled they can return to the other side of the river and settle there.

On the one hand, an anthropological reading of the text can say that this story comes to fill in the back story as to how certain tribes wound up living where they did, especially that certain tribes are outside the land that was talked about in the text.

Reading this story now symbolically, two things come to mind: The Gadites and the Reubenites were part of the larger community of Israelites, and even though they wanted to live in a geographically distinct area away from the Israelites, they needed to still be mindful that they are part of a larger whole, and they needed to support the other tribes. Or, in other words, single communities separated by geography need to support one another. This motivation is what perhaps drives our connection to Israel-we are geographically distinct yet feel a bond through our membership in the Jewish people. And this is why the pain over what Israel experiences and what Israel does is that much more acute.

The evil dark side is that Jews everywhere are being held responsible by others for what is happening right now. John Lloyd, writing in Reuters, notes:

…There’s a very large, and often very rich, Russian community in London – and there are no attacks on Russians or their mansions, restaurants or churches because of the Russian seizure of Crimea and sponsorship of uprisings in eastern Ukraine.

People from Sri Lanka didn’t live in fear when their government was pounding the Tamil Tigers into submission, with thousands of deaths. Chinese visitors are undisturbed by reaction to their government’s suppression of dissent in Tibet and its jailing of dissidents. And quite right, too. Who knows what Russians, Sri Lankans or Chinese abroad think about their governments’ actions?

Jews, by contrast, are held responsible by large numbers of non-Jews in Western democratic countries for Israeli actions. That’s all Jews, whatever their views on the Israeli response to the rockets fired on Israel from Gaza. Sometimes, the reaction goes much further than disapproval.

Lloyd notes the increase in seemingly unchecked anti-Semitism, including riots and a fire-bombing of a synagogue in France. This has been just as horrifying to watch as what is happening in Israel and something we can not take lightly.

A second understanding of the Torah story this week  is that sometimes separation is what is necessary in order to move forward, and that an original vision sometimes needs to be amended. In the Torah the original vision of all the tribes living together in the land needed to be changed to allow for the fulfillment of the request of the Gadites and the Reubenites. But this was perhaps a necessary step for the Israelites to continue.

Etgar Karet, a noted Israeli author, wrote a powerful op-ed about “peace.” That word is probably doing more harm than good he writes, because it take the human actors out of the mix. Reflecting on both an interview he conducted with Prime Minister Netanyahu and on his son’s second grade class, he writes,

It turned out that Netanyahu, a courageous former officer in an elite combat unit who had faced impossible odds in battle, thinks like my son and his classmates do when it comes to peace. I don’t want to spoil the mood of my prime minister or a class of second-grade kids, but I have a strong gut feeling that God won’t be giving us peace any time soon; we’re going to have to make an effort to achieve it on our own. And if we succeed, neither we nor the Palestinians will receive it free of charge.

Peace, by definition, is compromise between sides, and in that kind of compromise, each side has to pay a genuine, heavy price, not just in territories or money but also in a true change of worldview.

That’s why the first step might be to stop using the debilitating word “peace,” which has long since taken on transcendental and messianic meanings in both the political left and right wings, and replace it immediately with the word “compromise.” It might be a less rousing word, but at least it reminds us that the solution we are so eager for can’t be found in our prayers to God but in our insistence on a grueling, not always perfect dialogue with the other side.

True, it’s more difficult to write songs about compromise, especially the kind my son and other kids can sing in their angelic voices. And it doesn’t have the same cool look on T-shirts. But in contrast to the lovely word that demands nothing of the person saying it, the word “compromise” insists on the same preconditions from all those who use it: They must first agree to concessions, maybe even more – they must be willing to accept the assumption that beyond the just and absolute truth they believe in, another truth may exist. And in the racist and violent part of the world I live in, that’s nothing to scoff at.

These words are very powerful. It strikes me that this conflict is one that is being waged by those on both sides who have a greater-almost messianic-vision of how things should be. These visions will only perpetuate conflict and not bring about a resolution. “Compromise” is a better word than peace since it is more realistic and descriptive of what needs to happen. What needs to happen is that people need to give up the visions of what they think things should be, and instead see where they can compromise and give up and separate from, in order to move forward.

How we get there, I don’t know. But here is one thing.

In Israel and all across the world this past Tuesday Jews and Muslims were getting together to break the Muslim fast of Ramadan and the Jewish fast of the 17th of Tammuz. The joint fasts were to be seen as “hunger strikes” against violence and as prayers for life and peace. The initial effort was organized by a colleague of mine from Rabbis Without Borders who lives in Israel.

We didn’t have a big event here in Olympia, but I did head over to the mosque at the end of the day to join in prayers and iftar, the breaking of the fast. It was a small scale opportunity to share an experience and join together in common cause and friendship.

I don’t normally fast on the 17th of Tammuz. It is a minor fast day, and there are even some authorities who say that in times of peace and security the fast will be optional. That is definitely not the case this year, and with the added kavannah (intention) mentioned above, I took on the fast this year.

It was truly a compelling experience. In another sphere of my rabbinic life and learning these days I have been reflecting on the nature of prayer. I will be sharing more on that later, but for now I can say that the fast itself-which unlike Yom Kippur we undertake while we go about our normal daily business-was a type of prayer. A continuous beseeching of God throughout the day.

What was my prayer?

Please, God, let us

End the violence

Be kept from hatred and scorn

Stop creating false divisions

Learn to know when we need to pull back and compromise

See the death of all children as a fundamental tragedy

Deeply hear and understand each other’s narrative.

There is more to pray for I know. But for now, I’ll just leave it at that.