Friday, October 30, 2009

Auschwitz and memory

Every life lost
is a life extinguished
before its time

Systemized extermination
is inhumanity

We must

And yet
we must remember

So that
never happens again

help us

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Honest Doubts

Sharing doubts when doubts confront from within or without are ways of honestly acknowledging what's actually going on inside. Even though sharing a doubt or two or more is scary and sometimes scandalous, it ultimately takes much less energy than maintaining uncertain certainties built on sands shifting beneath our intellectual and emotional feet. When we refuse to acknowledge any uncertainty, but instead stand steadfast against any questioning inquiries, internal or external, we mount up with wings of Dodo's, flapping furiously against the forces of nature itself. Nature, like the God who created it, has rules that govern how things work. When something or someone goes against those rules, eventually they pay the price. Either they pay it quickly and relatively painlessly, or they keep trying to prove themselves right and everything and everyone else wrong, and the price keep rising. Eventually, the impulse to control reality on our terms causes the flightless Dodo to try to fly off a cliff to "prove" it can. While it is often said that nature abhors a vacuum, nature also abhors fools who refuse to learn they're fools. The one who acknowledges a doubt or two or three knows enough to hold back from the cliff's edge. Paying attention to the reality surrounding us and the reality inhering within us gives us an opportunity to consider that maybe, just maybe, I might be wrong. This is wisdom.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Columbus Day, Tish B'av and Native Americans

Today is Columbus Day. If you're a European American, it's customary to wish someone a happy Columbus Day. It's a holiday I celebrated gladly every year as a child back in New York City. I've lived in Italian neighborhoods just as much as I've lived in Irish neighborhoods (not to mention Latino and black neighborhoods). Both holidays (Columbus and St. Patrick's) are extremely popular on Staten Island, no matter your background. But regarding Columbus Day we always celebrated it as the day America was "discovered" by Christopher Columbus. We'd recite the names of his three ships, the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria; Memorize the nice little poetic device of "In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue" and hear about how he, and all those after him, brought European civilization to North America. Columbus Day was always a fun holiday. After all, I had the day off from school! What more could you ask for?

In August, there's a little known Jewish holy day called Tish B'av. Even most Jews hardly know about it. It's a holy day you never say have a happy one about. It commemorates the day the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed, first by the Babylonians and then centuries later by the Romans. According to tradition, these events both happened on the same day, the ninth of Av, which is what Tish B'av means. So this day holds a special and very somber meaning for Jews, since it commemorates a day of disaster for their people not just once, but many times, culminating of course in the modern holocaust.

Meanwhile, back to Columbus Day. How about the opinion of those who already lived in the land he "discovered"? This day, which is so celebrated by millions of Americans as a day of great discovery, is seen as the darkest day in Native American history. It's a day that marks the beginning of their end as a people connected to their land. It's a day that marks the beginning of a genocide that still has not been fully, or even partially, in most American's eyes, recognized or admitted. What of the enslavement of American Indians by Columbus himself? What of the consequent eradication of large swaths of peoples from the Alleganies all the way to the west coast?

Columbus Day is celebrated as a day of discovery.
Tish B'av is remembered as a day of mourning.
Native Americans also see this day as a day of mourning.
This day is their Tish B'av.

Let us walk in their steps and mourn with them. But better yet, let us walk with them towards a better future. We must be honest about what has happened. To lie about it is to perpetuate the crimes of the past. But we must move forward.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Learning as mitzvah

To learn is to do God's work after him. Since us humans are made in his image, we have at our bestowal a vast resource if we would but take advantage of it. Most of us most of the time live our lives barely beyond crawling out of the mud. Not that there's anything wrong with mud. It's what we're made out of and God called it (us) good. We must never forget our origins and how deeply we're embedded to the land that gave us birth. Mud is where we've come from, but it's not all of who we are. And it certainly isn't where we are called to stay. We also are these creatures that have this breath of life breathed into us from above. Not just nephesh, all living creatures have that. We all breathe and have our being with them. But we, these human creatures, seem to have had a breath of heaven breathed into us, this breath called ruach. Somehow this living breath gives us eyes in a way that even other creatures, our brothers and sisters of the soil, don't have. We have a sense of divinity that may exist in other creatures, but isn't expressible by words, or maybe I mean concepts. We look out beyond ourselves and wonder about what and why, where and when, and ultimately Who. All of the other creatures, animate and inanimate, have this ingrained sense of the divine within their being. But we wonder about it. We struggle with it. We look around and see, and wonder at what we're not seeing. Thus we learn. We seek out what isn't yet seen. We struggle to learn what isn't yet known. And in doing so, we see more of what God has created. We read of God as he has shown himself to us, whether by words breathed out on scrolls, or in words found as we breathe in air given to us from our brothers and fellow creatures, the trees that surround and feed us every day. As creatures who stand between heaven and earth, filled with spirit and soil, we straddle two worlds as we struggle through this world. Our knowledge is our blessing and our curse. God help us to learn from every teacher you have given us. Help us to learn what the world, in all its entirety, is. Help us to see what is and be at peace with that reality. To learn is to grow in the knowledge of God and his world.