psalm 95: dream of victory

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tonight let’s sing of victory,
we’ve been composing hymns
to our sorrow for too long,
why not write a joyous melody
to the moment we’ve been dreaming of,
the world we’ve been struggling for,
the place where deliverance
patiently awaits our arrival.

let’s sing out to a power
far greater than any we have ever known
or could possibly imagine,
our jubilant notes of praise
guiding us like breadcrumbs over impossible,
impassable mountain peaks, through
the narrowest of narrow spaces
where creation once wrenched land from sea.

let’s praise with wild abandon
the love that has nurtured us,
the strength that has somehow sustained us,
the journey that has been leading us
to this one timeless moment.

for too long we’ve been stumbling
through the wilderness
hardening our hearts in doubt,
fearfully shutting our eyes to wonders
we’ve never dared imagine, to the signposts
that might otherwise show us the way.

let’s stand down the voices
that whisper of our unworthiness, yes
we are the ones whose song
cannot not be silenced,
the ones who will fight back and win,
we are the generation that will finally
cross over to the place
of joy everlasting.


A Lament for the Detained Children

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My rendering of Lamentations 2, written and read for a Tisha B’Av vigil held at the Jerome Combs Detention Center, Kankakee, IL, August 11, 2019.

we are beyond humiliation
beyond shame
we incarcerate children without pity
we deport parents without a thought
and build systems that destroy families indiscriminately
now we truly know what it means to be dishonored
our so-called glorious past is now seen
for the sham that it was
the way of life we celebrate is but a privilege
for the few and the powerful
we can’t see that our own might
will be our downfall

we venerate leaders
who should be tried for their crimes
we never dared imagine a power
greater than our own
like so many before us
we conquered the land then drew borders
as a testament to our fear and dread
now we build higher walls
to keep out those who seek shelter
we built massive checkpoints
we lined up human beings
like cattle in cages
now children cry out for parents
who will never answer their calls
their voices echo endlessly
through the camps but there
is no one left to hear

we ask one another with bewilderment
have we ever seen such cruel violations
yet in truth we ourselves have inflicted
such cruelties on children here
and around the world
we sentence minors to life in prison without parole
we remain silent as a cruel occupation
abducts and imprisons children in military prisons
convicts them in military courts
and yet we dare to act surprised when
we hear news of children thrown into cages
at our southern border

our silence betrays us
these walls will soon encircle us all
soon there will be no one left
only a single mass of mourners
whispering broken hymns of lament
grieving what was lost
and what might have been
one day we will know the sorrow
of the dispossessed

we who never heard the cries of migrants
and their children will know what it means
to be uprooted detained and discarded
those who we scorned and abandoned
will bitterly welcome us to the world
of the dispossessed
the enemies we created
through our own fearful actions
will surely come back for us all

let us hope and pray
there is still time
let the cries of our children
pour into our hearts like water
the cries of any who have been forced
from their homes pursued
taken locked away sent away
anyone whose very lives are forbidden
forgotten forsaken
let their cries compel us
to take down oppressive systems
built by the powerful to maintain
the power of the powerful
let their cries remind us
that there is a power yet greater
that comes from a place that knows no borders
no deportations no barrier walls no prisons
no guards no soldiers no ICE no police

a place where we no longer need to struggle because
justice gushes forth like a mighty stream flowing freely
from the sovereign beyond all sovereigns
we beseech you chadeish yameniu
renew our days
that we may build the world
that somehow still might be
kein yehi ratzon – may it be your will
and may it be ours’
ve’nomar and let us say

Amen.


shalom aleichem/beyond borders

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photo: Love + Struggle

My invocation for the Action to End Criminalization, Detention and Deportations,
delivered at Daley Plaza, Chicago, July 13, 2019

shalom aleichem peace to you
angels of the most high
watch over those who find no rest
forced from their homes
forced to leave everything they’ve ever known
everyone they’ve ever loved
because poverty gripped their communities
because the military occupied their land
because agribusiness seized their farms
because the mining companies poisoned their soil
because the multinationals polluted their water
because they couldn’t leave their houses
for fear of the gangs who walked the streets day and night
oh angels who come from a place beyond all borders
sovereign beyond all sovereigns please
watch over them as they make their way
this is our prayer let’s say amen

shalom aleichem peace to you
angels of the most high
watch over the young woman eight months pregnant
who begged her family for five thousand dollars
after her house was burned to the ground by the militia
who crossed nine borders in two months
from cameroon to nigeria to ecuador then by bus and by foot
through colombia panama costa rica nicaragua honduras guatemala
and finally to tapachula mexico
now she’s sitting on a concrete bench cradling her swollen belly
wondering what will happen when she gets to tijuana
will she be detained will she be allowed to cross will she
be granted asylum will she be sent back to face the death squads
oh angels who come from a place beyond all borders
sovereign beyond all sovereigns please
watch over her as she makes her way
this is our prayer let’s say amen

shalom aleichem peace to you
angels of the most high
watch over the parents whose children
are ripped crying from their arms
just as they arrive at the border
who have no idea where their babies have been taken
who are not told where they are
or how they can reach them
watch over the children
who are left to fend for themselves
some too young to speak
without a guardian who knows them
without an adult who understands them
forced into backlogged courts
forced to sit in cold crowded holding cells for days
with no beds or showers where they can only
wait and hope and pray that someone will somehow find them
oh angels who come from a place beyond all borders
sovereign beyond all sovereigns please
don’t let them be forgotten
this is our prayer let’s say amen

shalom aleichem peace to you
angels of the most high
watch over those who live in constant fear
that those flashing police lights are meant for them
who wake up each day wondering is this the day
my children will be gone when i come home
is this the day i won’t come home
is this the day they’ll be snatched from the streets
from their cars from their workplaces
is this the day they’ll be shackled and thrown in unmarked vans
sent into detention cells onto airplanes and sent off into the night
for the crime of seeking a life of dignity for their families
oh angels who come from a place beyond all borders
sovereign beyond all sovereigns please
watch over them
this is our prayer let’s say amen

shalom aleichem to you angels of justice
angels of the most high
show us how to fight for the liberation of anyone
who has been forced from their homes pursued
taken locked away sent away
anyone whose very lives are forbidden forgotten forsaken
inspire us to take down oppressive systems
that were built by the powerful to maintain
the power of the powerful
remind us that there is a power yet greater
that comes from a place that knows no borders
no deportations no barrier walls no prisons
no guards no soldiers no police
a place where we no longer have to struggle for justice because
justice gushes forth like a mighty stream flowing freely
from the sovereign beyond all sovereigns
all of us angels of justice all of us
building the world we know is possible yes
shalom aleichem peace to you
peace to us all
this is our prayer let’s say amen


psalm 140: deliver me

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oh lord deliver me from my people
who wield their weapons with impunity
whose armies rain bombs on the imprisoned
whose apologists equate oppressor and oppressed
who punish resistance without mercy.

keep me from those who speak so easily of two sides
of dual narratives of complexities and coexistence
those who call submission peace and lawless laws justice
who never tire of intoning never again
even as they commit crimes again and again
who have forsaken every lesson they’ve learned
from their own history and their
own sacred heritage.

like jacob i have dreamed fearful dreams
i have struggled in the night
i have limped pitifully across the river
and now like jacob in my last dying breath
i have nothing left but to curse my own
whose tools are tools of lawlessness
who maim refugees who dare dream of return
and send bombs upon the desperate
for the crime of fighting back.

so send me away from this people
this tortured fallen assembly
keep me far from their council
count me not among their ranks
i can abide them no longer.


A Jewish Prayer for Nakba Day

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Le’el she’chafetz teshuvah,
to the One who desires return:

Receive with the fulness of your mercy
the hopes and prayers of those
who were uprooted, dispossessed
and expelled from their homes
during the devastation of the Nakba.

Sanctify for tov u’veracha,
for goodness and blessing,
the memory of those who were killed
in Lydda, in Haifa, in Beisan, in Deir Yassin
and so many other villages and cities
throughout Palestine.

Grant chesed ve’rachamim,
kindness and compassion,
upon the memory of the expelled
who died from hunger,
thirst and exhaustion
along the way.

Shelter beneath kanfei ha’shechinah,
the soft wings of your divine presence,
those who still live under military occupation,
who dwell in refugee camps,
those dispersed throughout the world
still dreaming of return.

Gather them mei’arbah kanfot ha’aretz
from the four corners of the earth
that their right to return to their homes
be honored at long last.

Let all who dwell in the land
live in dignity, equity and hope
so that they may bequeath to their children
a future of justice and peace.

Ve’nomar
and let us say,
Amen.

Le’el she’chafetz teshuvah,
to the One who desires repentance:

Inspire us to make a full accounting
of the wrongdoing that was
committed in our name.

Help us to face the terrible truth of the Nakba
and its ongoing injustice
that we may finally confess our offenses;
that we may finally move toward a future
of reparation and reconciliation.

Le’el malei rachamim,
to the One filled with compassion:
show us how to understand the pain
that compelled our people to inflict
such suffering upon another –
dispossessing families from their homes
in the vain hope of safety and security
for our own.

Osei hashalom,
Maker of peace,
guide us all toward a place
of healing and wholeness
that the land may be filled
with the sounds of joy and gladness
from the river to the sea
speedily in our day.

Ve’nomar
and let us say,
Amen.


Feeding the God of Compassion

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In the Torah portion, Parashat Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11 – 34:35), we find Moses on the top of the mountain and the Israelites growing restless. They’re not sure if Moses will ever come back, so they pressure Aaron into helping them build a Golden Calf that they can worship (“that will go before us.”) God inevitably becomes infuriated and threatens to wipe all of the Israelites. Though Moses eventually talks God off the ledge, God later sends a plague upon the people as punishment.

A little later on in our portion however, God appears to have reformed completely. When God passes by Moses on the top of Mt. Sinai, God’s divine attributes are described as: “compassionate and slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin.”

So which one is the real God? The punishing authority figure or the unconditionally loving parent? The angry warrior who demands that we dislodge and destroy the inhabitants of Canaan or the compassionate exemplar who commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves?

As I grapple with this question, myself, I’ve come to accept that whether we like it or not, both of these “Gods” are a part of our tradition. As much as we’d like to, we can’t wish away or surgically excise the nasty God from our sacred texts. On the contrary: if we really intend to be serious about incorporating Biblical tradition into our spiritual lives, we need to be prepared to own and confront the “everything” of that tradition.

For me that means asking this question openly and unflinchingly: if the Torah teaches us that human beings are made in the image of God, which image of God will we proclaim? The God of anger or the God of forgiveness? The God of hatred or the God compassion? The God of harsh judgement or the God of loving acceptance?

Needless to say, classical Jewish tradition has had a great deal to say about these questions throughout the centuries. You may be interested to know that contemporary neuroscience has been exploring these issues as well. Over the past decade or so in fact, physicians have been investigating the ways in which spirituality is rooted in the biology of the brain. By combining the fields of neuroscience and religious studies, they’re helping us to actually understand how our neurological makeup influences the ways we experience God.

Several years ago, Dr. Andrew Newberg, the founder of the Center for Spirituality and the Mind at the University of Pennsylvania, explored these issues in his book, “Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief.” This was Dr. Newberg’s basic premise:

Every event that happens to us or any actions that we take can be associated with activity in one or more specific regions of the brain. This includes, necessarily, all religious and spiritual experiences. The evidence further compels us to believe that if God does indeed exist, the only place (God) can manifest (God) existence would be in the tangled neural pathways and physiological structures of the brain.

For me, the most amazing findings of this research demonstrate the way God has evolved neurologically over the centuries. In a later book, “How God Changes Your Brain,” Newberg posited that different experiences of God actually correlate to the development of the human brain. Neurologically speaking, researchers have located the angry, authoritarian God in the limbic system, which houses the oldest and most primitive structures of the brain. This includes the amygdala – the little almond-shaped organ that generates our “fight or flight” response.

The benevolent, compassionate God, on the other hand, can be found in our frontal lobes, and particularly in a structure known as the anterior cingulate. These are the parts of the brain most primarily associated with our experience of compassion and empathy. Compared to the ancient limbic system, these structures are the most recently evolved parts of our brain and they appear to be unique to human beings. This is how Newberg put it:

Something happened in the brains of our ancestors that gave us the power to tame this authoritarian God. No one knows exactly when or how it happened, but the neural structures that evolved enhanced our ability to cooperate with others. They gave us the ability to construct language and to consciously think in logical and reasonable ways…Without these new neural connections, humans would be limited in their ability to develop an inner moral code or a societal system of ethics.

To be clear: this is not an argument for doing away with our brain stems. We obviously cannot survive without them. And we cannot deny that there may well be times in our lives when anger, fear and vigilance are warranted. The problem, of course, is that we can too easily let our limbic systems run wild. Indeed, neurological research demonstrates that whenever we let our anger or fear overpower us, brain activity in our frontal lobes gets shut down. When this happens, our “fight or flight” response is generated, and it spreads rapidly throughout our brains.

We’ve long known that excessive anger or fear can cause problems like high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. Studies also show that extreme anger can permanently disrupt structures in both our brains that control basic functions like memory storage and cognitive accuracy. In other words, when we indulge our anger, we feed the more toxic and destructive manifestations of God.

In Jewish terms, this research remindes me of the famous dynamic between the Yetzer Hara (“the bad inclination”) and the Yetzer Hatov (“the good inclination.”) The rabbis made sure to point out that the Yetzer Harah was an essential aspect of our humanity. The conventional translation of ra and tov as “good” and “evil” is not tremendously helpful in this regard. The sages, in fact take pains to point out that we need them both. Whether we like it or not, these impulses are a part of us – much like our limbic system is an essential and necessary part of our brain. The point is not to deny or repress our Yetzer Hara, but to channel and master it. As the verse from classic rabbinic text Pirke Avot teaches: “Mi hu gibor? Mi’she kovesh et yitzro” – “Who is mighty? The one who masters one’s yetzer (hara).”

So how do we do this? By consciously channelling our “fight or flight” impulses while exercising those frontal lobes. Or another way of putting it: by keeping our baser instincts in check while nurturing our capacity for kindness. And believe it or not, science itself is proving that compassion and empathy can be neurologically contagious. Studies demonstrate conclusively that there is increased activity in the compassion center of the brain whenever we perceive others as being sensitive to our needs. Scientists have also concluded through research that the more positive contact we have with members of other different religions, cultural, and ethnic groups, the less prejudice we tend to harbor in our brains.

So to return to our portion, I’m struck that it when God witnesses the Golden Calf episode, we read an all too human description of a limbic system run amok. Interestingly enough, it is Moses himself who serves as the frontal cortex in this case, keeping God from indulging the impulses toward annihilation.

I can’t help but think there is a profound neurological/ethical lesson for us in all of this. Given the precarious nature of our 21st century reality, I’d suggest we need to heed this lesson now more than ever.


Sealing the Gates of Heaven

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According to an order from the most high
the first day of the month shall be a sacred occasion
when the shofar is sounded the gates will be sealed
and all roads will be closed to you.
You shall not you leave your homes
nor work at your occupations.
lest you and your kin be put to death.

Like fires lit on ancient mountaintops
the announcement spread throughout the land;
when the new moon came the wall was locked tight
so the people could gather in their houses of prayer
to greet another new year.

And the Chazan sang:
As a shepherd numbering his flocks
passing his sheep under his staff
thus I count you off one by one,
marking your every move, noting your every thought
writing you down in my Book of Life
that I may decree
who shall live and who shall die.

Day after day they sent out
fearful prayers into the dark dread
of a year they did not yet know,
desperately hoping their lives would be spared
by the merciful judge on high.

For today it is written
and in ten days it will be sealed
who will be taken in the dead of night
and who shall sleep until morning
who will die and who will be born
into this cruel and pitiless world

When the festival came to an end
the great shofar was sounded
and a still small voice was heard:
The gates of heaven are sealed;
they do will open to your prayers.