Meditations on Manna

Part I: Manna is the taste of in between. 

It came into being at twilight, moments before the first Shabbat. In the breath between chapter one and chapter two of Breishit, something magical occurs. Ten things are created, things of great consequence and mystery. God had already said וְהִנֵּה־טוֹב מְאֹד – Look! This is so good! – but there were finishing touches yet to be made, wonders and oddities that would only be revealed later, of which one is the manna. 

This mysterious substance, likened to clouds and heavenly dust and coriander and your mother’s honey cake, is how God sustained Bnei Yisrael in the wilderness. Forty years our people wandered, liminal in space and purpose. We were neither who nor where we were destined to end up; rather we were fully in between. Throughout that in-between time, there was manna, a provision which eludes concrete description to this day. It appeared for collection each morning, like frost. It evaporated in the heat of the day, and was the first example of planned obsolescence: any amount that wasn’t eaten on the day it was collected became rancid overnight. The exception was every seventh day, for which twice as much appeared, in order to obviate the need of collecting any on the day of rest, which both had and hadn’t been invented.

In the interstices between enslavement and freedom, between Egypt and the Promised Land, there was manna. The manna descended day upon day for forty years, no matter where Bnei Yisrael wandered. It remained with them up to the border of the Promised Land. Upon their arrival, the story goes, they were no longer in between.

Part II: Manna is the taste of Shabbat

Manna is associated with the first Shabbat, twice. Recall that when God rests for the first time after having created the world, manna is among the ten magical afterthoughts. The first human Shabbat comes later, in Beshallach. (Long before the Torah comes, incidentally.) Moshe introduces the idea of Shabbat, instructing the people to plan their cooking ahead of time and making the allowance to leave it overnight in this circumstance. The culture of Shabbat develops in part from what we tell ourselves about manna. The double portion of manna becomes the source for having two challot on Shabbat. And the Mechilte d’Rabbi Ishmael teaches us to stay close to family on Shabbat, not go more than 2000 cubits from home, and to have three meals corresponding to the three hayoms in

 וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אִכְלֻהוּ הַיּוֹם כִּי־שַׁבָּת הַיּוֹם לַיי הַיּוֹם לֹא תִמְצָאֻהוּ בַּשָּׂדֶה׃

And Moshe said: Eat it today, for today is a Shabbat to God; 
today you will not find it [manna] in the field.

Although the Torah has yet to be given at this point in the story, one of its central principles is introduced here in connection with manna. Manna and Shabbat become linked in the Jewish imagination. Like Shabbat, manna comes without our effort and without our merit. It is an inheritance that God grants us despite our shortcomings, no matter how little we deserve it. 

Part III: Manna is the taste of hope  

Manna shows up for the Israelites at a moment of prolonged uncertainty. As the gut churns with questions of what we are doing, where we are going, and whether we are on the right path; as the people wander, err, dissolve and resolve, manna is a constant presence. Manna adapts itself to meet needs both known and unknown: when a person collects too much or not enough, somehow, through some divine alchemy, the amount is made right. 

We learn that Moshe instructed Bnei Yisrael to gather an extra omer of manna, to protect as an inheritance for future generations. This was to be held as an eternal reminder of how we were sustained through those years of wandering, so that future generations can see the heavenly bread God fed us as we were being taken out of Egypt. 

Perhaps forty years of coriander would grow tiresome; according to Ramban, the manna tasted like whatever the person eating it desired. If that isn’t the taste of hope, I can’t imagine what is.

Part IV: Manna is the taste of the divine

There is a Name for what happens when our needs are met. There is a Name for unknowable things that spring from the generations of light. Manna is the very dust of heaven pouring through the open doors, the grain of shamayim raining down as angel bread. If it happened once, it would be miraculous. That it happened day by day for forty years is beyond miraculous. 

Its very daily-ness was a blessing. The Netivot Shalom writes that the manna was a pipeline to the Divine, a way for Bnei Yisrael to remain in close daily contact with God by entrusting their needs to Hashem. In Parshat Breishit, when God exiles Adam and Eve and the serpent from Eden, the humans are cursed to toil for their daily bread, while the snake is cursed to eat dust. The Slonimer Rebbe teaches that the abundance of the earth-dust that the snake eats means that it never looks up, never takes note of a higher presence. On the other hand, the Jews’ awareness of their own human needs turns out to be a blessing, for in this awareness, we seek the presence of God. The manna, as the bread of heaven, is representative of the Holy One’s constant presence; the daily posture of seeking allows us to connect with God.

The Sfat Emet expounds on the omer they were permitted to keep as an inheritance for future generations. He teaches that this rem[a]inder is that which is seen through the eye of wisdom: that true freedom comes when the soul is not entangled in the body. The capacity to transcend our physical needs, and to open our eyes instead to the spiritual, is what we learned anew each and every day in the wilderness, and what we pass along to our children today. The manna offered our ancestors a taste of God’s constant presence; its remainder is still with us.   

Searching for Joseph

(Dvar Torah on Vayigash for Congregation Beth Israel in Ann Arbor, Michigan)

Shabbat shalom! It’s good to be back! Thank you, Rav Nadav, for the honor of giving a few words of Torah this morning. 

These past few parshiot, we have been deeply engaged with Joseph, that maddening, inspiring, outsized personality whose story looms large over both Sefer Breishit and Sefer Shmot and yet who remains nameless in our liturgy. That in itself is curious, that he gets four parshiot (maybe four and a half) and yet not a word in our daily prayers. I’ll say more about that in a bit. First the inspiration for what we’ll explore today.

When I rolled into town last Sunday, after the hugs and the reunions (shades of Vayigash), I was greeted with a question from my favorite Joseph: my father, Joseph Gurt. In his inimitable way, Dad said, “I’m gonna ask you a question. The Rabbi talked about Joseph yesterday, and I kept wondering. Why is Joseph so important?” 

Good question, Dad. Let’s get into it.

At the simplest level, Joseph is an interesting dude. He has a rich and complicated emotional life and a unique temperament. As a younger man, he tends toward arrogance; who am I kidding, many readers find the Joseph of Parshat Vayeshev insufferable, between his telling tales to Jacob about his big brothers, and his self-centered dreams, and of course, his preening around in his special coat from his father. Like a classic favorite child, he believes his own publicity a little too much and assumes, both awake and asleep, that the world revolves around him. I’m not recommending throwing your annoying siblings into a pit or selling them into servitude, but you can kinda see where the brothers are coming from.

Yet the narcissism is not the only aspect of Joseph’s character. His is a complex temperament with many facets. Even after he becomes a powerful figure in Egypt he continues to seek his father’s approval, as when, after revealing himself to his brothers, he sends them to bring Jacob from Eretz Canaan to Egypt and instructs them to tell him all about his high status in the land of Egypt. His insecurity, despite having been the golden child, is fascinating—and probably a good lesson for us parents about holding boundaries for our children even as we love them unconditionally. 

In Breishit 45:28, just after Jacob receives the news that Joseph is still alive and has reached a position of prominence in Egypt, we read: 

וַיֹּאמֶר יִשְׂרָאֵל רַב עוֹד־יוֹסֵף בְּנִי חָי אֵלְכָה וְאֶרְאֶנּוּ בְּטֶרֶם אָמוּת׃ 

It is plenty! My son Joseph is still alive. Let me go and see him before I die.

The 13th century French commentator Chizkuni notes about the words

רַב עוֹד־יוֹסֵף בְּנִי חָי

“Yaakov meant that when the brothers told him that Joseph was alive, and that he was a ruler in Egypt, the second part of the sentence was unnecessary. As long as he knew that Joseph was alive, he was totally unconcerned with Joseph’s standing politically.” 

It seems that despite all the advantages that his brothers resent him for, Joseph remains heart-wrenchingly human in his insecurity and need to please his father. 

Joseph is also a person of great determination and resourcefulness. Despite the abuses he experiences as a young man, and despite the longing for family, despite the enslavement and the wrongful imprisonment, he becomes a role model in many ways. This is a person who overcomes his hard times and cleverly uses his skills to better himself and improve his position. Joseph, despite everything that has happened to him, never gives up. Even when he’s in jail, his charisma enables him to rise to a position of importance, and he uses his skill at dream interpretation to make himself indispensable. When opportunity strikes, he is Joseph-on-the-spot to take what advantage he can, and to plant the seeds with Pharaoh’s cup-bearer that will eventually lead to his release. 

Once released, he successfully interprets Pharaoh’s dreams and adds advice for how to manage the coming famine. Because his advice is sound, he quickly rises in the ranks and becomes second in command to Pharaoh himself. When opportunity knocks, Joseph opens the door wide. 

And when his brothers knock, he sees the opportunity to test their loyalty. Once satisfied that they have grown up too, he opens the door wide for them as well. In Parshat Vayigash he finally reunites with his family, and rather than holding a grudge against his brothers, he models forgiveness. In Breishit 45:5 he says:

וְעַתָּה  אַל־תֵּעָצְבוּ וְאַל־יִחַר בְּעֵינֵיכֶם כִּי־מְכַרְתֶּם אֹתִי הֵנָּה כִּי לְמִחְיָה שְׁלָחַנִי אֱלֹהִים לִפְנֵיכֶם׃ 

Now, don’t be distressed and don’t blame yourselves that you sold me here, for it was to save life that God sent me here before you. (Breishit 45:5)

Joseph’s ability to level up and take a higher perspective about what happened in the past makes for one of the most moving scenes in the Torah. 

It’s not only the strength of character to forgive. Joseph’s capacity to perceive that even the harshest mistreatment—and the misfortune that followed it—could be composted into a higher purpose is another aspect of his personality that makes him interesting and important in our tradition. His behavior in this scene contains a powerful teaching that echoes throughout our literature and throughout our history. It is not for nothing that one of the most persecuted peoples on earth, a tiny fraction of the world’s population, has produced some of the most important scientific, artistic, and philosophical work. Like Joseph, we don’t give up; thֿat ability to keep moving forward in impossible circumstances is one we can and do emulate.

These, then, are some of the reasons Joseph is so important at eye level. 

Yet he is also important at sky level. The Joseph story, even his brothers’ youthful betrayal, is part of the architecture of our tradition. His being sold (back in Vayeshev) to some passing Ishmaelim into a life of slavery set into motion one of the foundational narratives of our people. 

If Joseph hadn’t gone down to Egypt, Pharaoh wouldn’t have been prepared for the famine and there would have been widespread starvation and destruction; perhaps our tradition would have ended before it started. If he hadn’t been able to forgive his brothers and settle them in Goshen near him to ride out the long years of scarcity, the Israelites would not have gained a foothold in Egypt and grown numerous. If Joseph hadn’t had such a reputation, there would not have arisen eventually a Pharaoh who knew not Joseph, and the entire tradition of liberation and redemption would not be ours.

In simple terms: no Joseph, no Mitzrayim. No Mitzrayim, no Yetziat Mitzrayim.

Indeed the foundations of this architecture are way back in Lech L’cha, when God tells then-childless Abraham in chapter 15 that his descendants will be enslaved in a land not their own for 400 years and that God will redeem them.

Which brings us back to the question of why Joseph isn’t in the siddur. I would argue that he actually is, just not by name. In Mishnah Brachot 1:5, the Sages discuss the commandment in Dvarim 16:3: 

לְמַעַן תִּזְכֹּר אֶת־יוֹם צֵאתְךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ

In order to remember the day of your departure from Egypt כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ (all the days of your life)

The Sages of the Mishnah wonder together about that phrase כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ and whether it implicates recalling Yetziat Mitzrayim in evening prayers, as we now do. Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya notes Ben Zoma’s interpretation: that the כֹּל makes the difference. He says: 

יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ, הַיָּמִים. כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ, הַלֵּילוֹת. 

Yemei chayecha indicates the days. KOL yemei chayecha indicates also the nights.

וַחֲכָמִים אוֹמְרִים, יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ, הָעוֹלָם הַזֶּה. כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ, לְהָבִיא לִימוֹת הַמָּשִׁיחַ: 

And the Sages continue: Yemei chayecha is this world. KOL yemei chayecha in order to bring the Days of Moshiach.

Not only does the story of enslavement and eventual triumph, which has Joseph’s fingerprints all over it, get mentioned in the siddur on a daily and nightly basis, the mitzvah of recalling it has the power to bring about ultimate redemption.

I would argue there is another, subtler way, that Joseph influences our liturgy. Joseph is a big cryer, probably the one with whom the shoresh letters bet chaf yud—to weep—are most associated. Joseph has big feelings, and when he reveals his true identity to his brothers—not as the powerful man in Egypt who holds their very lives in his hands but as their long-lost brother—the river of sadness and longing for family that he’s kept in check all this time overflows its banks וַיִּתֵּן אֶת־קֹלוֹ בִּבְכִי and he gives his voice to weeping. Contrary to 21st century American culture, which regards emotion with suspicion at best, our tradition valorizes it and regards it as a direct pathway to the Divine.

We learn on Baba Metzia 59a that from the moment the Temple was destroyed the gates of tefillah are locked. But, the Sages continue:

ואע”פ ששערי תפלה ננעלו, שערי דמעות לא ננעלו

Even though the gates of prayer are locked, the gates of tears are not locked.

With his resourcefulness, capacity to forgive, emotional openness, and ability to see the bigger canvas, the Joseph of the Bible—annoying Joseph, agonizingly human Joseph, overdramatic, spoiled Joseph—grows up and ends up being our teacher in so many ways, and his influence echoes subtly and profoundly down the generations. 

Lifting our Eyes

(Dvar Torah on Vayeira)

Shabbat Shalom! Sometimes when I look back on my week, a clear theme emerges. Maybe it’s the same with you. 

For me, this week’s theme has been navigating spaces where disagreement is sharp and inevitable. It’s not only the election, although that has been heavy on my mind. It’s also many other situations I find myself in. For example, in one of my internships, I get to work with a small group whose members’ political views vary widely within the group and vary from my own views. And then there’s social media, and other modes of non-face-to-face communication. Sometimes it seems like the deck is stacked with opportunities to separate from one another, to say, “I can’t possibly be in relationship or in community with this person. We are too different.” And yet, this very response is self-perpetuating, leading to fewer and fewer of the connective threads that bind us together. 

The less we interact with each other, the less we see—really see—each other. And the less we see each other, the less we feel safe to interact. It’s a vicious cycle that threatens the stability of our society. The media environment contributes in terrible, cynical, and dishonorable ways. There is so much noise, so much static from overheated news sources that profit by making caricatures of political opponents, making them look more like monsters than actual humans created בצלם ,אלהים in the image of God. Today being Veteran’s Day reminds us of the awful human cost when we stop seeing one another’s humanity, and instead stoke the flames of conflict.

The Rabbis of the Talmud had a discussion on Brachot 9b about how much light there needs to be in order to say the morning Sh’ma, that ultimate prayer of unity. Some of the Sages say there needs to be enough light so we can tell the difference between blue and white; others say, between blue and green. Then they consider maybe the standard is being able to distinguish a dog from a wolf. Others say it’s when there’s enough light that you can recognize a neighbor from a short distance. Our Sages were telling us how important it is for us to really notice the people around us. You can’t love your neighbor if you can’t see your neighbor.

Our Torah portion this week offers a lesson in this kind of openness. The name of the parsha, and also its first word, Vayeira, means, “And Adonai appeared.” At the beginning of the parsha, God appears to Abraham as he rests at the opening of his tent, exhausted and in pain. Yet, when God draws his attention to the form of three approaching strangers, Abraham lifts his eyes וַיִּשָּׂא עֵינָיו and takes in the sight of the three figures, who are typically interpreted to be three messengers from God. 

In this source text for traditional Jewish hospitality, Abraham welcomes the three as honored guests, washing their feet and offering the best food that he and Sarah have on hand. Rather than being suspicious of the new arrivals, he instead made every effort to make them at home. When he lifted his eyes, he truly saw them and welcomed them in.

What’s remarkable about this scene is that Abraham’s hospitality and welcome were unconditional. While he might have had reason to be suspicious or wary of people he didn’t know, he leaned instead into openness and curiosity, becoming a model for our people of how hospitality and human connection can look. 

Later in the parsha, Abraham is in an altogether different situation as he navigates God’s loyalty test for him: the binding of his son Isaac. In this moment, Abraham finds himself in a horrific, impossible situation, having seemingly been instructed by God to sacrifice his own child. Leaving aside the morality of this test—as far as I’m concerned, God has a lot to answer for in this parsha—what I want us to notice tonight is what gets Abraham out of this unthinkable situation. He is literally poised with a knife over his son’s throat when he hears a voice, another messenger from God, calling out his name. And again, וַיִּשָּׂא אַבְרָהָם אֶת־עֵינָיו Abraham lifts his eyes and sees a ram in the thicket, which he then substitutes for Isaac in the sacrifice. Lifting his eyes and seeing his surroundings more clearly prevents Abraham from making the mistake of a lifetime.

The first verse of Psalm 121 contains these words: אֶשָּׂא עֵינַי אֶל־הֶהָרִים מֵאַיִן יָבֹא עֶזְרִי I lift my eyes up to the hills, where my help comes from. There is something about looking and seeing that settles us and calls us into alignment. Perhaps this is why the Sages of the Talmud so insistently emphasize seeing as the condition under which we can call on one another to acknowledge God’s holy presence. In a clear enough light we can see the image of God in our neighbors, and in ourselves.

Which brings us back to the current climate of disagreement and distrust. It could be different! I read an article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal about a convent located near the campus of Neumann University that is dedicating part of its space as a dormitory for undergraduate students. What began as an unlikely but practical solution to a shortage of on-campus housing has turned into a very touching story of people meeting across differences of culture, background, belief and lifestyle. The nuns and the students are now sharing nature walks, knitting lessons, and occasional meals together. The nuns bake cookies for the students and the students order ice cream sandwiches for the nuns. Most of all, they spend time together learning to understand one another’s very different lives. They are breaking stereotypes and preconceptions by lifting their eyes and truly seeing each other. 

What would it be like if more of us lifted our eyes away from our stereotypes, from our habitual ways of seeing the world, from our doomscrolling and sought out God’s image in one another, even—or maybe especially—with people we disagree with, the so-called other side? I want to be clear that I don’t mean this as a solution for out-and-out hate, but rather for not allowing simmering distrust and misunderstanding to fester into hate in the first place. We can only enter into productive relationship that can withstand conflict when we truly see one another clearly. And we might learn something about the world and about ourselves by taking that risk, in curiosity and hope.

Shabbat shalom!

Parshat Va’era

“I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

Samuel Beckett’s searing words from Waiting for Godot seem to sum up the national mood just now. Many of my recent conversations have been shot through with sadness and exhaustion, feelings I have felt at times myself, deeply. There is a real cognitive dissonance between the life we are trying to live and the life we are actually living. The world around us is staggeringly abnormal, but as a society, we seem to have made the collective agreement to act as if it’s pretend-normal. We meet in person, hidden behind masks. We might hug, but then we back up ארבע אמות (four cubits) to secure our perimeters. At the same time, we attempt to churn through our daily tasks trying to keep everything going, all the while haunted by a sense of dread and uncertainty. The things we expect of ourselves (productivity, energy, gratitude) don’t account for how broken many of us feel. When a nearly two-year pandemic with no end in sight is not even the only problem on people’s minds, that’s saying something.

There is a phrase in this week’s parsha that speaks beautifully to this swirl of anxiety and overwhelm and crisis – קוצר רוח. I’ll leave it untranslated for now as we think through it together. Picking up the story where we left off last week: Moshe has made his first attempt with Pharaoh, trying to follow God’s instruction and free Bnei Yisrael. It did not go as planned — at least not as Moshe had planned. Instead of agreeing to Moshe’s request, Pharaoh made life much worse for the Israelites, turning the screws to make their work even harder. To the task of making bricks, Pharaoh added a step: the Israelites now must gather their own straw, before they can make the bricks. Yet their quotas remain unchanged.

More work, harsher conditions, same rigorous expectations. Sounds about right.

So in Parshat Va’era, Moshe comes to deliver a rousing message from God, saying that help is on the way, that God is in the wings ready to make everything OK, that great things are in store once they get out of there! God promises to take the Israelites as God’s own people (לְעָם — as a man takes a woman לְאִשָׁה). Yet when Moshe relays God’s promise, his words fall on ears that are not deaf but numb – the people just can’t

וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה כֵּן אֶל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְלֹא שָֽׁמְעוּ אֶל־מֹשֶׁה 

מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ וּמֵעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה׃

And Moshe did speak to the children of Israel, but they didn’t hear him,
because of the קוצר רוח and the backbreaking work.

Rashi, the Medieval French Torah commentator, says this קוצר רוח is shortness of breath: 

כָּל מִי שֶׁהוּא מֵצֵר, רוּחוֹ וּנְשִׁימָתוֹ קְצָרָה, 

וְאֵינוֹ יָכוֹל לְהַאֲרִיךְ בִּנְשִׁימָתוֹ:

Everyone who is in distress, his spirit and his breath are short, and he cannot lengthen his breath — a person experiencing קוצר רוח just can’t catch a decent breath.

On the other hand, the 18th century Moroccan scholar, the Or haChaim, sees it as a shortness of breadth. Picking up on the other meaning of ruach, having to do with spirit, the Or haChaim argues that since the Israelites had yet to receive Torah, they were not able to hear Moshe’s message; without Torah, they were stuck in a narrow-minded place.

I am inclined to agree with him. To me, the קוצר רוח is not specifically about the breath aspect but rather about being crushed in spirit. As we saw last week, the people were in a place of severe degradation, with multiple overlapping calamities weighing on them. Seeing their children murdered, being worked to the bone, losing their connection to beloved traditions and customs… Having to gather their own straw was the least of it, but perhaps also the last straw. They were so compromised that Moshe’s hopeful message in this week’s parsha was impossible to take on board. The role of fatigue in crises of faith cannot be overestimated.

At this moment it seems hopeless, like the first half of the couplet from Godot: I can’t go on. The קוצר רוח feels insurmountable.

But here’s the second half of the couplet: I’ll go on. As is so often the case in our tradition, the seeds of redemption are planted in the soil of the harshest experiences. In Parshat Shmot, the cries of the Israelites rise up and God begins to take notice. In chapter 2, verse 25, the people have God’s full attention:

וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים אֶת־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיֵּדַע אֱלֹהִים׃

And God saw the Children of Israel, and God knew.

The Midrash Aggadah reads this pasuk through the language of רחמנות, referencing that great sufferer איוב (Job). What God knew was that the Israelites saw themselves as blameless, distraught like איוב — incapable of pity for their own anguish but rather אֶמְאַס חַיָּי — sick and tired of their own lives. This is קוצר רוח; a people that has become degraded and hopeless. But God won’t leave us in that state. God’s knowing is rooted in a deep empathy for Bnei Yisrael’s plight: יָדַעְתִּי אֶת־מַכְאֹבָיו — I know my people’s pain. And God keeps the wheel turning.

The road back from such desperation is long and brutal. The plagues and their associated trauma are just beginning in this parsha. The agonies of slavery are layered over with a deep sense of uncertainty about whether and when freedom will come, and what it will cost. The Israelites will not breathe deeply for some time — as they witness bizarre and horrible things all around them. Meanwhile Moshe struggles with Pharaoh, with God, and with himself, poised between, “I can’t go on,” and, “I’ll go on.”

Luckily we know the story; we know how it ends (and doesn’t). We know that God will redeem Bnei Yisrael, and that redemption will be harder than anyone imagined. We know that it will be agonizingly incomplete, not just for Moshe but for us. We will move forward, fall back, see signs of hope and see our hopes dashed. We will be boxed in, locked down, worried and aching with loss. We will have moments when we again are gathering our own straw. We will have moments where we, too, can’t breathe, moments when our spirits are crushed. And yet we will have moments of triumph even so. Eventually things will be different. Not perfect, not necessarily even better. But a space will open up, where we can begin to hear and see and know…and breathe. And God will meet us there.

“I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

“I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

Say it with me.

“I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

Fade to White

I skipped first grade and spent second grade in New York for my dad’s sabbatical year. Finally, in third grade, I was able to have a birthday party with my school friends. I grew up in a small town and while my experience in the public schools of that town was decidedly mixed, one aspect of it was a great blessing. I had friends of many races and cultures, and in the way of children, I didn’t even notice it as anything special. In early May in my third grade year, I excitedly invited about 20 kids to my house for the Sunday closest to my birthday. I couldn’t wait to play bean bag toss and fake horseshoes and run around my suburban Michigan backyard in my new party dress with my friends.

Then the day came, and all the white kids showed up. None of the Black ones did. I was sad and surprised but my parents weren’t. They didn’t explain it to me; they might not have had the words. It took me decades to understand that as much as my Black friends liked me, they might not have felt safe coming to my house on a Sunday afternoon. Their parents might not have felt safe bringing them to my neighborhood. All the cake and ice cream would have to be weighed against being around all those white people.

As I grew up, my world got whiter and whiter. The last time I had meaningful, everyday friendships with Black people was in graduate school at Michigan. And if I’m being truthful, it’s quite possible that those folks didn’t think of me as a friend as much as I thought of them that way. I probably exhausted them. But I loved them fiercely, as I love all my friends.

There’s real sadness for me about the narrowing of my world. A workshop I attended this week at school, part of a three-day seminar at Hebrew College on Racial Justice, brought up the question of why so many white people’s worlds have gotten whiter and whiter. What are the factors at play, factors that were previewed long ago on an impossibly sunny Sunday in May? 

I was touched by the invitation from activist Tamara Fish, who led that workshop, to rekindle the relationships we used to have when our worlds were more colorful. I’m connected with many of my friends — from childhood through graduate school — on social media. Occasionally we talk or message back and forth. What might it look like to deepen those relationships and to cultivate more such connections? My approach to the rabbinate — as to life — is relational. Why not here too? What might it feel like, post-pandemic, to invite people to my Shabbat table whom I don’t know well, people who aren’t just like me but in whom I’m genuinely interested? And how do I do that without it being A Project To Diversify My World?

How do I move beyond being just another well-intentioned white lady, with all the fragility that implies?

We learn B’shallach this week, the dramatic escape of the Israelites and the crossing at the Sea of Reeds. And I keep thinking about the (not quite) parallel slavery narratives. The miracle for the Israelites was making it through the Sea of Reeds on dry land, leaving the Egyptian oppressors to drown in their own violence and rapacity. When — when — will the miracle come for Black Americans, and what will happen to their oppressors? Which side are you on? Which side am I? 

When the sea opens up for Black liberation, will I cross again, alongside a beloved community I have helped to nurture, or will I drown in my own sins?

My childhood friend, the brilliant soprano Anita Johnson, recorded this moving video in response to the inauguration of President Biden and Vice President Harris. Her song perfectly captures what I know is in my grasp. 

Let there be peace on earth.

Let it begin with me too, Anita.