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Tag: exodus

year upon year, truth upon truth…

14th-century rendering of the plagues of egypt

we are tellers and re-tellers of story, a people long bound by the unspooling of truths told in text or in verse, around table or hearth, under moon and star or plaster and beam.

in the geometry of time, there lies both wisdom and instruction in the unfurling of the year, an unfurling that might feel like a circle but that i see as a spiral. year after year, we return to texts––familiar texts––that draw us in more and more deeply, the more closely we pay attention. 

so it is––as i fill my house with matzo and shred it of breadcrumbs, as i shop for both lamb and shank bone, as i steam mounds and mounds of asparagus––that once again we come to this holy stretch of time endowed with foundational story, ancient stories both christian and jewish. the story of a savior who wept in a garden, and soon was betrayed, then flogged and stripped and pierced with a crown of thorns. a humiliation as severe as any i’ve ever read. certainly more than any i’ve ever known. and at the same time in this house, we read and retell the story of the enslaved jews finding their way out of bondage, crossing an isthmus, a sand bar in a sea of reeds, but not before witnessing the scourge of ten plagues. 

the beauty of these texts, and any text meant for endless curiosity––these texts, as if prisms we hold to the light, turning and turning for the making of new rainbows––is that each year some new fragment may catch our attention. new rainbows might scatter against the walls of our soul. 

so it is that this year i am thinking anew of the plagues: water turning to blood, frogs, lice, flies, livestock pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, and the killing of firstborn children.

i remember how at the long seder table where my boys grew up, the table would be scattered with wee plastic frogs and broad-winged bugs; ping pong balls would serve as hail. and red food dye would be splattered on plates. the detail was never lost. 

and only this year––a year when both those boys who once squirmed at the bugs and squealed at the blood will be hundred of miles away––only this year have i come to pay closer attention to what the plagues might have meant to the story we’re commanded to tell. 

according to a wise, wise rabbi whose wisdom i found myself reading the other day, the plagues are “commonly read as punishments levied against the egyptian people for the terrible suffering they forced upon the israelites,” writes sharon brous, the senior rabbi and founder of IKAR, a jewish congregation in los angeles, a rabbi who calls it her life’s work to re-animate religion. oh, that we animate it, this vein in our lives that seems to either be bent to fit particular agendas, or shoved to the side altogether. 

but, writes rabbi brous, there is another way to interpret the plagues, and God’s intent therein (and here’s where i buckle my seatbelt, and begin my own homegrown rocket ride): what if the plagues, the sufferings, are meant not to punish but rather to tender the heart. to grow compassion. to breathe and breed empathies. 

we need turn to the 16th and 17th centuries, to the wisdom of a venetian scholar and rabbi named obadiah ben jacob sforno, to find the seeds of this thinking: sforno argued in his commentary on the text of exodus that the plagues were actually brought to awaken the conscience of the oppressor, “to increase the chances that pharaoh would finally see the light and become a genuine penitent.” 

“in other words,” writes brous, “what God desired was a true change of heart. God wanted pharaoh and his people to take responsibility for the injustices they committed. tell the truth. make amends. offer reparations. chart a new course, together with the israelites.”

in a world as plagued as ours currently is––war and pillage, pandemic and pestilence, fire and flood and drought––in a world where it’s too too easy to turn our backs on the sacred, to point to the suffering and insist there’s no God so hard-hearted to look the other way so therefore there must be no God, in a world as replete with reasons not to believe, what if the radical notion, the one that’s hardest to come by, is the dawning idea that with each and every suffering we grow more and more tender. 

there’s the crux, the hard part: to allow the suffering to tender us, not to harden. not to let horrors metastasize, not to let hurt spread like a cancer, nor turn us into walking, talking cess pools of resentment, to leave us every morning, noon, and night with the afterburn of bitterness there on our tongues. 

imagine ten of your own plagues: the time you were double-crossed; the time you discovered a terrible truth, a truth that was crushing; the dying and death of someone you loved. the remembering and never forgetting of a time you caused the suffering. the lie you let grow. the cruel innuendo that crossed your own lips. count your own ten.

now, consider the pain that you felt. how it awoke you in the night. how it haunted you by the day. how it felt like a nest of hornets let loose in your soul. 

now imagine that the pain didn’t harden. imagine it worked to loosen the loam of your soul. allowed room for new seeds to be planted there. tender sproutlings of purer compassion. how, ever after, you knew what it meant to grieve in a bottomless way. how, ever after, you knew how tempting it was to turn away and never turn back. how, ever after, you knew the muscularity demanded to rise up and out from the darkness. 

consider how those plagues pushed you––not without ache, not without wishing you could wish it away––toward a deeper, broader understanding of and connection with the suffering all around.

imagine if the resonance of your own hours of suffering allowed you to look upon the sins and the suffering all around and find common ground, feel your heart open not close.

imagine if the world’s suffering was meant to do the same. imagine if all this is an exercise in tendering our holiest vessel: the one heart made as a chamber for the sacred to dwell. 

what if, instead of growing bitter and hard over time, we grow softer and sweeter? what if we return to the text––the suffering and crucifixion of the one born to teach and live love, the freeing of an oppressed people made to witness hardship upon hardship, ten plagues in all––what if we return to the text and find, for the very first time, a wisdom to carry us on? into a world that never seems to pause in its inflicting of pain.

what if, in feeling the pain, we are moved to be the agent of balm, of healing, of lifting the other out of a pain we know all too well? tikkun olam. “repair the world.” mend the tatters. reimagine the whole.

there must be wisdom, must be reason we circle again and again to the same lines of text, as if we’re meant to meet it again with whomever we are one year to the next. this year the lines that most drew me in were the ones that ask why in the world would ours be a God who not only allows but inflicts plague upon plague, hurt upon hurt.

my knowing next year might differ. but this year i’ve come to dwell on the thought that no one escapes a life stitched with sufferings. and if the sufferings come, how might they make of us souls that pulse with compassion. communion, after all, is the holiness we seek. oneness. with God, with ourselves, and the whole of humanity circling this earth in this long, dark hour.

what plagues move you to compassion? (a question to answer deep in your soul in these entwined holy hours ahead….)

i cannot let this day pass without remembering my beautiful mother-in-law whom i last saw on this day, her birthday, a year ago. we keep her flame alive, very much alive, in the telling and re-telling of her stories. may they never end…..

*the question of the israelites and the plagues––whether they witnessed them or endured them––was a question that prompted much discussion at dinner last night. one of those rabbit holes into which we fall at our house because one of us––either the jew or the catholic––is always fairly new (or newer) to a story, and wonders about it in ways that have never quite struck the one to whom it is more familiar. i’d assumed––wrongly, it turns out––that to be in egypt at the time of the plagues meant to endure them but a closer read of the story made clear that, according to Exodus, for at least some of the plagues, the israelites were protected. certainly, i knew that the whole point of the “passover” was that Jews were to mark the doorways to their home with the blood of a sacrificed lamb, and the angel of death would know to pass over, sparing the firstborn son. i hadn’t realized––nor had my tablemate––that plagues one through three seem to have been endured by all, and four through ten were endured only by the egyptians, except for those who were penitent and thus spared the wrath.

in which we pull spring from out of the earth…

IMG_1406

file this under “desperately seeking proof.” or perhaps, “it’s so necessary this time round.”

the subject is the eruption of spring: that moment, year after year, for as many years as there’ve ever been, when the whole chorus of buds, the vocal cords of feathered flocks and the tips at the ends of the trees, all decide at once to clang the cymbals, pound the drums, and explode like nobody’s business.

it’s so necessary this time round. so necessary when the airwaves fill us with cataclysmic reports, when going to the grocery is an exercise in holding your breath, when reading the morning news just might have you heaving before your first spoon of cornflakes.

Unknownhere in my little corner of the world, about three fingers in from the east coast (if you’re looking at a palm-sized map), a whole thumbprint down from the canadian border, hard against that blue pendicle we know as lake michigan, there is the faintest rumbling of spring. not nearly enough. not enough for a vast swath of humanity staring out the kitchen window on high alert for the invisible virus, not enough for worn-down souls on the lookout for hope.

so i’ve been doing my part: i’ve put serious thought to my latest rube goldbergian plot. my plan to coax the eruption out of the earth. i’ve pictured myself out in the deep ink of the night, knees folded into a crouch, fist wrapped tight around a flashlight, pointing the beam onto stem after stem, branch after branch, seeing if a little light therapy might coax things along.

i’ve got friends in far-off-enough places who are sending me dispatches of itty-bitty finch eggs already laid. cherry trees awash in their seasonal meringue.

here in sweet chicago, here so close to the lake you can hear it lapping the shore: nada, zilch, practically zero. certainly not enough for a soul hungry for spring in the same way some of our bellies growl at the first whiff of oozy cheese in a griddle…

perhaps it would help if i scrawled paint onto a banner, spelled out the plea, “dear mama earth, PLEASE HELP!” we are in serious need of emotional rescue down here. we would do well to fall into the arms of magnolia. might cheer to a bluebird riding along on our shoulder. might fling ourselves face-first and eyes wide open into a bed of tulips and daffodil. fill our lungs with parfum de lilac instead of the fear of the red-ringed demon.

oh, there’ve been the subtlest of cues: goldfinch feathers dropping their wintry drab, taking on the sunshine-gleam of gold that gives them their name; the first lilliputian daffodils putting up their periscopes of promise (see proof above); the birdsong that cannot wait for first light of dawn, birdsong so thick you might think it a recording.

but this is no year for subtlety. this is a year for all the hope we can find. we are holding our breath down here on planet earth, where the whole globe is at a standstill. we need a  vernal exclamation like never before.

those faraway friends tell me it’s coming. a friend in cambridge says, except for corona, this would be the most perfect spring she’s seen in a very long while. except for corona…

because my days are a checkerboard of occasional plug-ins — chanting with monks on mondays and thursdays, inhaling celtic spirituality direct from galway nine days in a row, chiming in on a once-a-week book group based in seattle — i’ve plenty of time for prowling my plot. i make the rounds at least twice a day, on the lookout for any sign of eruption. all but wander the walks with measuring stick and string, all in the hopes of seeing some progress.

this is a season for turning our keenest attentions to the rumblings of earth, to this most intoxicating science and faith that never fails, that offers page after page of wisdom and truth.

this unforgettable spring we are learning the art of deep patience. “ride it out,” is the mantra. “stick close to home,” the instruction.

i, like you most likely, have hours when my knees go wobbly. i’ve wiped away the occasional tear or two (or five). i’m trying to be something of a lifeline for a kid i love who’s all alone in a faraway place, where the walls sometimes press in. trying to make life here at home as tranquil and gentle and sometimes delicious as i can possibly muster. (for reasons that don’t quite escape me, i’ve taken keen fondness for a spritz bottle of lavender mist, which i spritz till the sheets and the pillows are soggy. and i figure the more delicious aromas i can stir from the kitchen, the better the chances i can steady the kid in the room up above, the one whose spring semester has — like everyone else’s — gone up in red-ringed vapors.)

it’s a master class in surrender to which we’ve been enlisted. no one asked first if we’d choose it. it was thrust wildly upon us.

the questions are these: how quiet can we go? how calm might we settle our souls? what new and wondrous epiphanies might drop before our eyes, our hearts, our imaginations? what brings you peace? where is your joy? what pulls you out from your darkest hours? who is your lifeline?

and, where oh where, is the promise of spring?

and suddenly, the holiest of weeks is almost upon us: holy week and easter for churchgoers; passover for jews. as i sink deep into the braiding of those two ancient traditions, i leave you with this from our rabbi, a page from the prayers of passover, as we mark the exodus — safe passage — from egypt, in search and hope and belief in the promised land. it’s a theme with particular resonance this year….

In our prayer book,Mishkan T’filah, we read about the crossing of the Red Sea:

        Standing on the parted shores of history

        we still believe what we were taught

        before ever we stood at Sinai’s foot;

        that wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt

        that there is a better place, a promised land;

        that the winding way to that promise

        passes through the wilderness.

        That there is no way to get from here to there

        except by joining hands, marching

        together.

join hands, march together; believe in the promised land….

have you stumbled into epiphanies? found yourself a lifeline? what are the saving graces in your days?