Revelation and Tragedy: Shavuot 5776/2016

Posted on June 14th, 2016 by

Last year for Shavuot, I wrote this blog post for my friends and former employers at the Simon Family JCC in Virginia Beach, VA. It gave me the opportunity to learn and ruminate on the affiliation of dairy with this spring-time festival. I came to the conclusion that eating dairy-based food on Shavuot (the festival on which we celebrate our reception of the Torah from God), is a form of extended, embodied metaphor. The Torah is like milk. It is God-given, pure, nutritious. It is complete as it is. But, like milk, when humans turn their attention to the Torah, we create amazing, delicious things—things that are of the God-given ingredients, but also more than.

Image via.

Image via.

This year for Shavuot, for the first time, I attended the “sunrise” Shavuot service at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, the congregational successor of the original Lloyd Street congregation (I put sunrise in quotes because the service begin at 8 AM). The service took place in a small courtyard, fully enclosed by the 1950s synagogue building and its adjacent school. In what can only be described as perfect weather, the assembled prayed and sang. Together, we heard chanted the portion of the Torah that contains the ten commandments.

One of the many awe-inducing moments of this holiday observance was the physical means by which the sacred scroll was supported to allow the cantor to read from it. There was no shulhan—no table—in the improvised courtyard-chapel. Instead, four pre-selected congregants held the scroll aloft and open. Each person held one of the massive handles, they supported its weight and held it at the right angle to allow the cantor to access the appropriate place in the scroll.

As I listened to the ancient words, a light breeze brushed my skin. The sun warmed my face. I looked into the blue sky to see a bird gliding high above, witness to our celebration of revelation.  I took in the view of my fellow congregants supporting the physical words so that the cantor could give them voice. The scroll was open facing me, so that I could see the letters on the parchment. Suddenly I was reminded of my conclusions from last year’s festival—Shavuot is not about a one-way monologue from God to humans; it is a celebration of the collaboration between God and humanity.

Even as I stood in awe in a synagogue courtyard and knew the truth of the importance of the divine-human collaboration, 900 miles away, more than 50 people lay dead and more than 50 others wounded by hate made human. I didn’t know it then, but my moment of transcendence was concurrent to the aftermath of violence aimed at people because of who they love, how they love. Because of who they are.

As I work to comprehend, I have no answers, only the same question—a very old question—on permanent repeat: how can both of these things be true at the same time?

And then a voice from my childhood surfaced on social media. Someone quoted my beloved Mr. Rogers, as they pointed to the more than $350,000 that had already been raised to support the victims of the Orlando terrorist attack and their families: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”

A small piece of wisdom

A small piece of wisdom

I thought again of the four Torah-holders, the helpers, God’s helpers. And I knew that they are only a metaphor for the help we all give—or withhold—from the divine every day. When we support one another, when we are helpers, we do God’s work. We take what God provides, emotions, reason, intellect, empathy, physical strength, logic, fortitude, vulnerability, compassion, and we turn them into amazing, delicious things. But we must not forget that by our actions and our choices, the ingredients can also be spoiled, made rancid. We can be made rancid. Both can be true at the same time.

I admit that I still do not comprehend.


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A blog post by Associate Director Tracie Guy-Decker. Read more posts from Tracie by clicking HERE.

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Happy Cinco de Mayo!

Posted on May 5th, 2016 by

Enjoy these photos from the 12th Seminar in Mexico, Committee on Cultural Relations with Latin America, from the Harry Greenstein collection, JMM 1971.20, MS 80. Check out Past Perfect Online to read about the individual images (start with 1971.020.055).

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Mouth full of hamentaschen, heart full of bravery

Posted on March 24th, 2016 by

Whenever I find myself blogging about a Jewish holiday (whether volunteer or voluntold), I always start with Seasons of Our Joy by Baltimore-native Arthur Waskow.

Seasons of our Joy

Seasons of our Joy

When I reviewed that go-to text on Purim, I was struck by this passage on page 118:

“The custom grew of making Purim-Torah—parodying the prayers themselves on Purim night, parodying the rabbis’ Talmudic debates and discussions over how to apply Torah to life-dilemmas.”

And then a few pages later, Waskow writes that in some congregations, after the megillah is read, a “Purim-rabbi—a mock rabbi chosen for the occasion—might give a sermon that pokes fun at established traditions and institutions.”

This idea of a Purim-authority who is a parody of authority, really struck me. In this season of American electoral politics, I suddenly realized that I am waiting for the Purim-candidates to yield the stage to the real candidates. They’re not going anywhere.

Large wooden gragger (noisemaker for Purim), made from solid wood pieces, c. 1900. This gragger was found in the basement of a Highlandtown rowhouse on Fairmont Ave. JMM 1999.162.1

Large wooden gragger (noisemaker for Purim), made from solid wood pieces, c. 1900. This gragger was found in the basement of a Highlandtown rowhouse on Fairmont Ave. JMM 1999.162.1

But that’s one of the points that Purim makes, isn’t it? It’s the holiday on which we are commanded to get so drunk that we cannot discern the difference between “blessed be Mordechai” and “cursed be Haman.” But maybe the drunkenness is necessary only to get us to drop our inhibitions that create the difference in the first place. Maybe the equality is always there for us to see, if only we could (indeed, Rabbi Waskow points out that using gematria, the two phrases are equivalent).

And see it we must, as a later passage made plain to me:

When the original history happened, the sublime liberation of Exodus came long before the farce of Purim. But when we finish living that history and begin to learn it, absorb it into our lives, digest it so that we can make a holy future, then it may be important for us to laugh first, to let the farce come first. For power is funny, and those who hold power are ridiculous. The first stage of liberation is that we learn to laugh at them.

But power is also profound, and liberation is also at the root of all the universe. Having learned to laugh, we become ready to seek our freedom seriously. There is a time laugh—and then there is a time to ask questions. (page 127)

Today, for Purim, we eat and we drink to excess. We poke fun at everything—especially authority. And Rabbi Waskow is right. If we can see the ridiculousness in authority, we can hope to challenge it when it oversteps its bounds.  And so, with my mouth full of the taste of hamentaschen, wine, and laughter, I for one, am looking ahead to what will be needed to stand up to Pharoah, to choose right over comfort, and to leave my mitzrayim, my narrow place. I am putting on the costume of Esther’s bravery not to pretend to be something I am not, but to practice being something I know I am.

Pre- School Purim March 1974. JCC Collection, JMM 2006.13.1063

Pre- School Purim March 1974. JCC Collection, JMM 2006.13.1063

And so, dear friends, I leave you with this blessing: may we all use the foolishness of Purim to uncover the righteousness that is already in the world and in us, waiting to be exalted, and may “the memory of Purim never cease from among us.”

Purim Sameach!

Tracie Guy-DeckerA blog post by Associate Director Tracie Guy-Decker. Read more posts from Tracie by clicking HERE.

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