Burning the Old Year
By Naomi Shihab Nye
Letters swallow themselves in seconds.
Notes friends tied to the doorknob,
transparent scarlet paper,
sizzle like moth wings,
marry the air.
So much of any year is flammable,
lists of vegetables, partial poems.
Orange swirling flame of days,
so little is a stone.
Where there was something and suddenly isn’t,
an absence shouts, celebrates, leaves a space.
I begin again with the smallest numbers.
Quick dance, shuffle of losses and leaves,
only the things I didn’t do
crackle after the blazing dies.
I stumbled upon this poem in the midst of the oppressive wildfire smoke that seemed to embody the endless, heavy grey period when our world felt paused. Even now, when skies have cleared, it speaks to me of the futile feeling of this in-between time, and of pondering whether action truly matters.
I want it to matter. Even in the turmoil of today’s terrifying uncertainty around politics, this pandemic, the climate, I want action to mater. And yet I wonder if it does when NO justice was served for Breonna Taylor despite the huge awakening to the Black Lives Matter movement over the past 6 months.
In today’s Torah portion, Moses, on the last day of his life, points out to the Jewish people that God has set before them the choice between life (God) and death, imploring them to choose life. I think we can all agree that of late, choosing life, choosing hope, feels risky. It means opening ourselves up to the possibility of despair and disappointment– because really 2020, what’s next? Life and death are a package deal- life is not JUST light or shadow, it’s a heck of a lot of grey. We know this as Seattleites facing months more grey and isolation as the weather turns and we still must stay distant from those we love. But from the literal and figurative grey of this time, the in-between, we can make a choice to embrace life and see beauty along the way. The beauty of living our Jewish values, the beauty of choosing community, the beauty of working for justice and for a better world for all.
Certainly the paused nature our lives right now, the abstention from so many of the pleasures of normal life, parallel the limbo of Yom Kippur. Much as we are symbolically to think of ourselves as apart from the living today, so, as a society, are we apart from our old lives. As we pause and reflect on the ways we wish to do better in 5781, we also make choices about what we really want in post-pandemic life.
Can we rebuild in a better way, selecting carefully the things we carry out of this period? Can we keep the technology that connects the less mobile members of our community? Can those living with family hold onto the tight bond we’ve nurtured during these insular months? Perhaps we’ll choose to not bring back the full hectic rush of after school activities and keep empty space instead for long walks, for baking and for Mad Hatter Tea parties.
Everything is a choice, even now. I can choose to make my voice heard in November and to reach out to encourage others to do the same, or just shrug in the privileged assumption that I myself will probably be just fine regardless of the outcome. I can choose to take concrete steps to disrupt white supremacy- or just nod at the Black Lives Matter sign in my yard and feel that I’ve done my part. I can choose to take a walk and breathe deeply of the fresh fall air, or I can sit indoors and bemoan the loss of our late summer.
Teshuvah, which we are implored to throughout this holiday, is defined as returning, but returning to what? Do we really want to return to the life that was? Or rather to the illusion of what it was? This time has been a struggle for many, but was the before really any easier for single parents, for the poor, for people of color, for people barely making it work? COVID, heightened visibility of police brutality, the fragile balance we are losing with nature, closure of schools- they all wipe away the illusion of stability that we pretended existed before for everyone. Perhaps teshuvah is really a chance to turn and acknowledge this truth.
Moses admonishes that the choice to turn to God is “neither beyond you nor far away… it is not too difficult”, such that a holy one need go up to heaven to get it. In fact, he tells them, “it is very near, in your mouth and in your heart- that you can surely do it”.
It might seem like one thing for our patriarchs and matriarchs to accept a commandment as being very close to them, and a whole different story for us today. After all, they were together as a community before Moses and before God, and we are alone- or at least apart from one another- in our livings rooms. But no, Moses was clear- it is in EVERY place, in here in OUR mouths and OUR hearts today too. I love the way Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, who has a blog endearingly titled The Velveteen Rabbi, countered this “out” that we might give ourselves:
“The Torah”, she tells us, “anticipates our lame and shamefaced protestations — our screwed-up certainty that making teshuvah is difficult, that God probably doesn’t want nebbishes like us anyway, that teshuvah requires something we can’t access or don’t know. Teshuvah isn’t baffling or out-of-reach; it isn’t in the heavens, and it isn’t across the sea. Teshuvah can be found in the words we speak, and in the innermost chambers of our hearts.”
She goes on to point out that “Judaism is about choosing, day after day, to do things. To feed the hungry. To work toward justice. To make Shabbat. To build the future. To give tzedakah. To hear the wake-up call of the shofar and live up to what the shofar asks of us, what God asks of us, what our anguished, burning planet asks of us.”
Rambam clarified “this thing is not too esoteric or distant for you, but rather is very close to you to do it in EVERY TIME and in EVERY place”. The choice to turn to God, to life, is right here with us today. Being removed from our sanctuary, and from our normal lives, does not exempt us from making this time and place holy.
In full disclosure, the “holy” place where I sit today is the same one where last night someone spilled milk and earlier today a cat raced through the room scattering bills and sticky notes to the wind. Perhaps these reminders of life’s fullness and chaos are holy too. Judaism is where and with whom we chose to make it- even if digitally.
I find so much hope in this concept of holiness in the mundane. Hope that we can open our souls to the holiness of social justice activism AND to the holiness of healing ourselves through the mastery of the perfect sourdough. To demanding action on climate change AND to whispering the Shema at bedtime. I have faith that we can make this time of separation “the fast that God wants”, and that we can chose to find some contentedness and purpose struggling through this grey in-between space together.