*God is nigh in the new Coen Brothers’ film, ‘Hail Caesar!’.
From the opening moment when the main character, Mannix (Josh Brolin), is seen in the confessional at 4am, until the film’s end when we see him stride confidently in his purpose as head of operations of a large Los Angeles movie studio, we are gifted with the inside scoop on how God works.
What better venue to teach us about faith and God than a 1960’s Hollywood studio? The themes of adultery, kidnapping, extortion, forbidden homosexuality, McCarthyism, Communism, bribery, and graft run freely as we watch the studio in production of a film about the life of Christ.
We are at first amused with the opening scene of a man in the confessional asking forgiveness for having smoked a couple of cigarettes outside of his promise to his wife that he will quit. It seems petty and small. Although he desires absolution from the sin of lying, this montage sets up a notion that he is led by the nose of guilt and sin to confess, and not by any great intellect.
As the film progresses though, we learn more about Mannix. Several films are being shot simultaneously in various sets and locations. His job is to oversee and trouble shoot them all, and to keep the studio schedules and bottom line on track. He has his hands full: the star of the studio’s blockbuster, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) has been kidnapped from the set; the Esther Williams knockoff (Scarlett Johansson) is single and now pregnant; the cow-brained heart throb Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) of their latest Western can’t act unless he is sitting on a horse or twirling a rope; the Gene Kelley-style hoofer, Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) is about to be outed by the gossip journals for having had gay sex with one of the studio’s star directors; and Mannix is being courted by the aerospace industry to sign on with them to head their nuclear weapons program for a guarantee of lifetime income. Meanwhile his wife phones to ask him to negotiate a better spot for their son on the Little League team.
At first it is all goofy and a bit reminiscent of ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum’.
On set, Baird is drugged and then hauled off unconscious to a hideout in Malibu. After awaking in a chaise lounge still dressed in his Roman togs, the maid shows him into a room full of nerds eating cucumber sandwiches—otherwise known as Communists. He becomes intrigued, is swayed by their passion to have the Caesars of the world give all back unto the workers, whilst being photographed by his new comrades with the unspoken purpose of blackmailing the studio for a ransom.
Meanwhile, back at the studio, in desperation, Hobie becomes the fill in for a swishy high society film to replace the Clark Gable type who did not show. He looks the part in his tux, but with his cow pie vocabulary can’t please the director.
In order to make the Christ film sell, Mannix brings in clergy from Christianity and Judaism for their feedback and approval. As they sit politely around the table, the clergy begin with criticism of some technical aspects of the film. Mannix redirects them back toward giving their theological considerations. At first gracious and polite, the men of faith quickly evolve into a theological wrestling match about who is God, who is Jesus, and which of these can star in a movie. We observe that the only one in the room with any faith at all is Mannix; he presses them to attest that the film at least is not offensive.
Back in his office, a troubled Hobie walks in just as Mannix is trying to close the briefcase with the $100,000 ransom money for Baird.
Enter God, stage left.
Mannix then begins to perform his real work through inspired decision-making. He sees the gift of natural simplicity in the cowhand and in an act of inspired faith confides with him about the kidnapping and ransom. Hobie’s natural simplicity and goodness allow him to help out just as willingly any good and honest western cowpoke would.
I was fascinated by the Hollywood Communist subplot. Growing up as a child of the 1950’s-‘70’s, I knew that Hollywood blacklisted wonderful talent because of its fear that Communism would take over America through occupying its media, particularly films. Ghastly apparitions of these Communists were made bigger than life: scary, smart, intellectuals and geniuses from the Soviet Union. What we see in this film is a living room in a luxury hideaway filled with ectomorphs and endomorphs eating crust-less cucumber sandwiches, espousing ideas they barely understand, and arguing with each other about them. They call upon their sage Professor Marcuse (John Bluthal), a thinly disguised avatar of Herbert Marcuse, who espouses in oblique terms about alienation from an increasingly totalitarian universe that trumpets its freedom at every moment.
The whole notion of a Communist takeover, dubious as it was during the height of the McCarthy flare up, is now turned on its head and portrayed as nothing more than a living room full of cranks. The final blow to any notion that the ideologies of these living room Communists had any social integrity comes when these intrepid Marxists row a dingy to rendezvous a Russian submarine. They beg Gurney, who leaps Hollywood-style from the dingy to board the sub, to take the ransom money from them, the lowly Workers, and give it to ‘The Cause’. So much for dispersing Wealth amongst the Workers of the World. Gurney takes his pet pooch instead, and the valise of money hurled toward him falls to the bottom of the sea. So much for The Cause.
The Coens have also hurled our beliefs in God, our religious institutions, Clergy, ideologies, and popular heroes down the drink…
But we are not left adrift for long:
The Coens bring us back to Mannix, once again in the confessional, same reason. But now, we understand his need for prayer. He is not a man draped in dogma, far from it. He deals with the fallout from religious dogma all day: protecting his gay director, his unmarried pregnant star; seeking ecclesiastic approval for the blockbuster film.
He is also wrestling what his own purpose is. Does he continue with this pivotal role in protecting Americans from their idols, despite his long overtime hours and mediocre pay? does he take the offer from the aerospace industry and gain monetary security while enabling the birth of the atomic bomb?
We watch him in fervent prayer. He then returns to the confessional to be forgiven about the cigarette lie again. This time though, he has a question for the confessor: what is one’s purpose in life, to do what brings security, or to do what feels right? the answer he is given is of course to do what is right. How will he know when that is?
we can feel when we are doing right, and when we do what feels right to us, we are doing God’s work.
When Mannix returns to work the next morning, he is light as a colt. He strides along the studio as his secretary follows him with the morning list of tasks. Each of the insurmountable problems of the day before is resolved: the pregnant star marries the stooge who was hired to temporarily adopt her child so she could then legitimately adopt it; the cowboy says his lines perfectly, because the director has made the words simpler; Mannix instructs his secretary to tell the aerospace rep No Thank You; the gossip columnist who had threatened to expose the homosexual liaisons of their star is told her witness to the scandal is a known Communist. Everything is in its place.
The penultimate piece is Mannix grabbing a loose-minded Baird by the scruff and telling him that as the star, his only job is to convince everyone in the audience that the actor on the cross is Christ, and nothing less.
We are cut to a marvelous scene: the Roman Clooney at the foot of the cross of the Jewish thief. And with a beatific countenance he expounds to the Roman beside him on the majesty of the teacher before them, and of his teachings about a new way for humanity. The Coens’ cameras are panning the set: handlers, script boys, costumers; all are awash in the glory of Clooney’s words. That is…until he stumbles for the last word of the script. We all fall off Mount Calvary and are back in Hollywood.
What was that last word? His co-star prompts him; “Faith“.
Oh well, in Hollywood there’s always time for one more take.
- A version of this article is also available in PlainViews March 16, 2016 Volume 13 No. 3, for professional Chaplains.
The reflective steps toward the Jewish New Year traditionally begin with the communal observance of Tisha b’Av, a day of mourning and fasting.
Tisha B’Av begins tonight (7/20/18) and is observed after Shabbat.
The observance of Tisha b’Av, our communal day of mourning, begins this evening.
Why would we have this sort of ‘holiday’? and how does it fit with today’s parasha?
If you think about it carefully, this holiday really doesn’t fit in with the rest of our Jewish yearly celebrations. Most are upbeat, with exciting and enlightening themes, great backstories, loads of ways to decorate or re-enact, and of course, great food. Certainly, they are all well worth the wait for their return each year.
So, why do we have this observance of mourning dropped into our liturgical year? It has none of the festive children’s activities or costumes as on Chanukah or Purim, communal meals as on Pesach (Passover), spirited songs or music such as we have on Kabbalat Shabbat (Sabbath Welcoming service), or symbolic decorations or ritual items such as the lulav, etrog or sukkah.
Spirit is a light and wonderful thing. It lives in our wonderful Kabbalat Shabbat tunes, in our imagery of rushing to meet God, just as the groom runs to meet the bride, in our imagery of ascending to the heights in the Yishtabach and Kedusha prayers. We call it ruach in Hebrew, the same word as for wind or the breath of life. Ruach is the kiss of breath that God gave to Adam, and again to Moses on the Mountain.
So, why was it that God turns the Israelites back just as they were being directed to ascend to the Promised Land, and Moses, not allowed to cross at all? Hang onto that thought from today’s retelling of the story by Moses in Deuteronomy:
What is the thing you feel when you are ill or have lost a beloved person or relationship? is it fear?
What do you crave at those times? Is it light and happy music, dressing up gaily, being told to cheer up?
We have great models for how to praise, thank and celebrate. But what road map or models do we follow when life’s curveballs come our way?
Growing up, I’d often missed Tisha b’Av, being away at secular summer camp or a family vacation, as did most kids I knew. Summer was not the best time to attract family participation in synagogue life when I was growing up!
Then as an adult I started to choose to come. The whole thing was a rather self-conscious endeavour, as everyone else seemed to know what to do, and I did not. Some synagogues dressed it up with chant-like dirges, personal confessionals or grim poetry. The common denominator though, was sitting on the floor with a candle, some words, and an overall gloomy experience.
I decided to deepen my understanding by learning to chant from Eicha, the book of Lamentations. This year, I also learned first hand the value of going deep rather than high to look for the answers to inner loss, because high spirits were dancing around me, and interfering with my search.
The Talmud tells us in Berakhot 10a that we praise God for our soul, “Barchi nafshi et Adonai, v’col koravai et Shem kodsho”: “My soul praises you Adonai, and all of my being praises your holy Name”. The rabbis are telling us that a human artist can draw a figure of a person, but they cannot give that drawing a soul. Only God can do that. We turn to God when we forget we need our soul.
Many people refuse to believe they need one. They smother over pain by keeping a stiff upper lip, numbing with prescription and recreational chemicals, acting out their anger or rage at others. The acting out can be frighteningly overt as we see on the news regularly, or polite and politically correct and covert with the euphemism of ‘non-violent’, but actually passive aggression.
Tisha b’Av says, good news! there is a healthy way to move through great changes that come with loss.
The truth of loss is that you really can’t go back to the way things used to be; and you will only get more angry the more you expect life to continue as it was. Remember that anger, overt or covert.
The truth is, that we only grow when we let go.
As a people we had to move on when the Temple was once again destroyed in 70 CE. We had no choice, we were forced to leave our place of Ascents behind.
We read Psalm 137 this evening as part of the Tisha b’Av service, reminding us that the first thing we did by the rivers of Babylon was to sit and weep as we remembered Zion. The next thing the psalmist tells us we did was to hang up our lyres, musical instruments of the Temple, on the willow branches, in order that our captors could not force us to levity and to sing and entertain them with songs about Jerusalem.
Why was this so important? Because this was a time of looking inward for guidance, and not the time for those spiritually soaring songs.
The past many weeks have been a time of great change for me too, having been quite ill. I believed at first that resting and staying positive would cause the illness to pass and then I’d go back to my former self and routines and work. But Finally,
A wonderful mentor who I hadn’t seen for a year took me aside and said, “You look terrible! What has happened to you?” Indeed, his plainspoken words cut through all the illusions I had been struggling to maintain to keep myself and others happy and feeling in high spirits.
The next weekend I schlepped myself to a choral concert, Haydn’s ‘The Creation’. I just wanted to let my mind wander and go with the music: after all the four guardian angels were there, in the forms of two sopranos, a tenor and a bass soloist.
I want to testify to you that the man who sang the role of Raphael, the bass soloist, saved my life. In Part II of The Creation, as Haydn took us to the lower realms Raphael’s voice took the audience there with him in the most earnest embrace of power and vocal security, down to the basement of the human voice. Or perhaps lower. This note, the lowest D, poured out like a chocolate lava pudding through his willing and open jowls. We listeners also slid, safely and softly, as if a giant’s paw deliberately and lovingly delivered us to the bottom of a long snowy ride.
The sigh in the room was not so much heard as taken in breath together, much as the way a mother and her baby at breast sigh with satiety as one.
Masterfully, he paused.
Mercifully allowing us that moment of silence to take in our found and restored soul, to be able to return to, again and again.
As our tradition says, the artist can create music, but it is that God gives the musician and the listener the soul. ‘Barchi nafshi et Adonai, v’chol koravai et Shem kodsho’.
I have returned many times since Sunday. That place he brought us to, so far down, below from the high spirits of the grand hallelujahs, to the place of healing. There I was safely able to know that indeed life had changed forever and that it was lovingly going to be okay. Who but Raphael, his Hebrew name meaning God’s Healer, should bring such Refuah Shelaima, a return to wholeness?
Back to Moses and the Israelites: We read in Deuteronomy Ch.1: 20-46 that God saw them hesitate with fear and enlist spies to check out the Promised Land, rather than trusting to go forth with soul and spirit in alignment. He told them, No you won’t be going in, and although just like small children they simpered and begged to be let in, God said No. Their descendants, a generation away from the fear and bondage of Egypt, would be allowed in; and rather than Moses, whose work was to lead them away from bondage, it would be Joshua who would now lead the new generation forth into the Promised Land.
I know more of what Tisha b’Av is about now. Each year I will know more.
Each time I find myself trying to lift up when things really need to go down, I know that Raphael’s soul voice will be there to reassure me that it’s okay to trustfully surrender and let go of what binds me, and to find comfort in the recalibration and growth.
‘Barchi nafshi et Adonai, v’col koravai et Shem kodsho’.
*Re-posted from a 2015 entry on The Compassionate Oboe blog
…©Susan J Katz 2015
Recently, while remaining in the slow lane of recovery from a long string of illnesses, I was invited to relax into a poetry circle. The work began by reading Richard Siken’s poem, ‘Self-Portrait Against Red Wallpaper’.
Its lyrically rolling themes of surrender and recalibration hooked my tired attention. For the past eight weeks, every time I had come up for breath to recover from one gross infection, another would take hold, spectacularly culminating in a trip to Emergency for an appendectomy. Surrender? I was summoned. My regular hi-speed routine was gone and was still out the window far, far away.
Sheesh. What had gone so wrong that it was eight weeks and counting to recovery? Or, was I doing something wrong? A inner review said I dutifully went to doctor appointments and was proactive every time a new manifestation of infection and illness presented. Surely it was not possible to fabricate a sequence of illnesses like this!
My crew of inner cynics tried to persuade me that I had.
After all, they said, what else have you got to do with your time and imagination besides conjure up illnesses? All day long you just lie in bed dozing and reading, and serially watch TV while babying yourself with chicken soup. Why not find new excuses to bother the doctor? Hey, call an ambulance and vomit violently enough to disgust even the paramedics. Wouldn’t anyone want to try that?
Despite the self-taunting, I am am investing in healthcare to end this series of acute illnesses. As a spiritual health practitioner, I recognize the onset of personal review and accounting for all the losses and breakages caused by this time away from health. Our hi-speed modalities just don’t allow for slackers who take three months off from the fast track. Even as I step gingerly back onto the speedway, rejoining the hi-speed pace as it was, is unattainable. My new inner timepiece tells me that trying to do this is actually undesirable as well.
At first this new engagement was a lonely pit I’d fallen into, but as word got out, well wishes and blessings for a return to health came my way. Recovery took on an unexpected twist; I needed to regain my interpersonal skills after spending these weeks mostly with virtual personalities. My companions to laugh and cry with existed mostly on a TV flat screen. I felt apologetic to those whom I’ve let down while being laid up, by missing crucial meetings and deadlines. I needed to stay slow and recoup. Others have silently voiced their views by moving on to other partnerships and projects.
Success is indeed fragile. A detour away from perceived perfection creates disillusionment and fracture. Well, that has taught me another way of learning to discern whom the keepers are and whom to let go of. Friends remain while in need, indeed.
The call to the poet and the faithful to embrace surrender comes more easily. Not long ago I would only navigate the world on my own terms. I’ve learned now about the sweetness, serenity and magic that comes with letting go when the internal tug-of-war becomes futile. I know now that I am not really in charge: Something much greater than myself is. And that is okay. I get some good insights and answers this way. I talk to God and listen for the casual reply, as John Denver would say. It has been a comforting and a treasured time.
Returning to the world with the expectation of being the same has to be re-evaluated.
As the great myths, folklores, faiths tell us, when taking a great journey afar, one never returns the same. In fact, don’t even expect or try to. Come back draped in Golden Fleece, with Stone Tablets and horns of light, ruby slippers, perhaps bearing a Medusa or Jabberwock’s head. We who went away somewhere faced something, most likely of our inner selves, and cannot go back to whom we had been. Once you know something, an inner sight, you can’t unknown it.
I feel thoughtful and good about coming back to those who are waiting. Those folks who’ve moved on since I became ill? It’s because their memory of me that went away and didn’t come back. I’m a new version of myself, shifted not by all the TV watching, but really mostly by observing what feeds me and what does not, and choosing what makes me fed and strong. As Siken’s poem says, “Don’t try to make a stronger wind/ you’ll wear yourself out. Build a better sail.”
I’m sorry, I have to shift now to catch the wind I want to say to all. With grace and faith, many are still with me, taking my cues that a gentle entry is happening. We also collectively acknowledge that a few more beckoning sirens and rocky shoals lay enroute before coming into home harbor.
I’ve shed a great deal of baggage these past months, deleting extraneous, intrusive social media accounts and list-serves, and letting go of pet projects: most importantly I’ve faced that inner cynicism that slowly bleeds my attention and energy. Recalibrating with a refined cargo is part of the journey and takes time.
A friend brought me a recording of Michael Meade to listen to. About Fate and Destiny. I was losing interest in gunning up the energy to re-enter the speed chase, but this gift reminded me of the work I am here to do. In order to do it, I must learn to surrender, feel and let go of what drains me, and surrender to the goodness of the work that pulls me lovingly forward. I had created some fine relationships and laid tracks into the work of my destiny. No need to stop now, I’ve built a better sail.
I understand that the hi-speed tracks are here to stay. Please, though, Surrender from time to time, and don’t forget to Recalibrate and capture the wind in your new sail. It’s a blessed roadside stop on the fulfillment of your destiny.
…Susan J Katz© 2015
I just came home from attending a Symphony concert this evening. The program was filled with unfamiliar pieces written by familiar composers, Prokofiev and Bruckner. These selections had much in common, particularly their apparent roaming from theme to theme and modulation of mood and modes.
My mind has been filled with too much information this past week. I’ve been awakening from health problems that have waylaid me for the past few months and prevented me from engaging in the things I love most and do best. Some self-focus and attention to healthcare has brought the restoration of my body’s inner chemistry. It’s also unleashed an avalanche of information in the way of waylaid emotions, misplaced jobs, forgotten rendezvous, sheets of unplayed music, and a dear friend whose memorial service is tomorrow afternoon.
I am writing as a writer about a writer. I had known Jude for 7 years; about the time I started facilitating a writing program for mental health consumers, Write From The Heart©. He was one of my first participants, and continued long afterward to be in the program. At the time, he was already a speaker about mental illness, and yet new to writing. One time I had a guest speaker, a very famous journalist, come to the class to talk about writing: I think Jude’s life changed dramatically having been touched by celebrity, bringing him closer to knowing that being on the margins was only a mindset; and that anyone could come close enough to touch the edges where celebrities could be someone we know on a first name basis. Even ourselves.
This evening though I sat with a friend at the symphony in the lower balcony, surrounded by an audience that despite the announcements not to at the opening of the concert, clapped between movements. They also dog-whistled and jumped to their feet, bringing to mind a Vancouver Canucks hockey game right in the midst of the grand old dame of the Orpheum theatre.
They also started to leave in the middle of the Bruckner symphony, which came after the intermission. I guess there was nothing for them to whistle about, as each of the movements became more and more unresolved and restless. And so did the some of the audience, so they left. Except for the man behind me who kept whispering too loudly to his neighbor and had to be shushed.
The third movement came to an end, and many in the audience tried as usual to applaud; but the conductor leapt adroitly right into the last movement before a hand clapped, thank Goodness. People sank into their seats, obliged it seems that there would be more of the same to come.
My tangled thoughts had become an unresolved jumble too, but of information: too much music to learn on too many instruments with too many performing groups; someone who had just phoned me that evening to minister to their loved one in the hospital and I pondered when to visit; how to squeeze in time to run writing programs, minister to others, and also take care of my own health plans, and how I had not yet had time to be with the loss of Jude.
I felt agitated as the unresolved music spread out further and further in its disresolution. In affinity, my waycrossed needs and thoughts were snagged into the sounds, as if blithely grabbing a handhold on a passing streetcar to an unknown place.
I liked the ride. The wave of loss and tears rolled down my cheeks as swells of a romantic theme swept over the orchestra. I could see the big fiddles, cellos and basses, bowing as if adrift on a sea, pulling together with the waves of sighs and resolves.
The call of horns drew me to the other side of the corps, and some noble truths about Jude emerged. How generous he had always been, down to the core. Gifted in his ability to tell things straight, yet always with the caveats of great humility and graciousness. He was fun and funny, and his serious demeanour made him even more so.
One of my best memories was over this past spring. We ran into each other waiting for the #20 bus downtown–otherwise known as the ‘You Could Die Waiting For the #20 Bus’. This one was the ultimate trip: Hastings Street was blocked off, and it took 1-1/2 hours to get to Clark St, which is actually only a 45-minute walk away. We had a wonderful ride, the bus full of DownTown EastSide characters and community. We slogged through police tape and flashing lights and had lots of time to talk. We talked about his work as a Peer Support Worker, about our plans for our third book*, about how mental health services, and our respective jobs. We were two sides of a coin, him working as a peer support to help people in their daily lives, and myself as a spiritual care support for times of crisis and questioning. He again talked about the writing program, and urged me to find a way to continue it, as it was on a hiatus while until finding more funding. He got off to go to his favourite greasy spoon restaurant and I rode the rest of the way home.
The music shifted at that moment of reverie into a disorganized lull again and there the ironic part of the story cut in. A couple of weeks ago, I received word that funding I had applied for had come through. It was after before Susan T and Margo R and I met to talk about our next book. Jude hadn’t shown up for our meeting. Jude never missed a meeting.
The next day, before I could tell them about the funding, Susan T called me. I was driving. She told me–Jude had died. I pulled over, stunned. Now Bruckner’s symphony music washed over me. Jude was in it, he was being pulled away with the breakers and current. ‘No!’ I thought, not now, not Jude!’ But it was true. Susan told me so. That’s why he didn’t show up at our meeting.
Now the music trickled over me more, little sand dabs of hot tears raining down, foretelling an upswelling wave about to crash. Horns blasted, the tuba bellowed from some deep underground belly, the one my doctor told me to breathe into, to allow myself a good relaxation response. The tuba told me to breathe, ‘way down there, feel the body right down to the basement, right down there where Jude lies’. Right down there where nothing and everything matters.
I was held and comforted by the rolling music, in just the right way of reaching into the hurt and loss. Over and over and out, from seesawing bows in the lower strings to the piping in of upper woodwinds; the Gabriel’s horns and trumpets, and the grandest of tubas. The conductor rocked and nurtured the latent nuances from their hesitations as we all headed home for the last gracing of notes, and Jude was held safe in my heart.
I won’t say how we were instantly alerted back to, for heaven’s sake, VANCOUVER, by the shockwave of a
shout out of ‘BRAVO!!!’ by someone seated right behind the conductor. The last of Bruckner’s notes was not even allowed to finish its breath. I’ll leave the etiquette conundrum for the symphony society to figure out, along with any treatment for PTSD the conductor or orchestra members may require…
I returned to planet real life intact, but will never be the same. During that last movement of that Bruckner symphony, my world shifted forever. Jude is gone, the great sea of something greater than we are took him. And thanks to Bruckner’s music, our memories of Jude and his stories will live on. Our writers, Susan T, Margo, myself, will live with the intimacy we knew with him, that intimacy amongst writers that is so complete. Indeed, like the titles of our books, evening the frayed edges is a lifelong process. We love you Jude, and thank you for the time you gave us, and your stories that will live on after we too are gone.
* for further information about our books, go to: The Recovery Narrative Project©
I just had a sip of Manischewitz wine, expecting to have a bit of warmth and sweetness before calling it a night. As the sweetness turned into a glow, there came a rush of memory. I was suddenly a little girl again, maybe 4 years old, or even smaller, sitting at a big noisy table where my parents and grandparents and brother were all gathered for a holiday dinner. Those times were always so special to me: all my favourite people together in our home, even though it really was all so busy and hard to really take in everything that was going on. But there was the simplicity of that ritual we always had, whether it was Passover or Thanksgiving: the Manischewitz wine. I think my Grandma Dot had a lot to do with insuring that it was served, it was her ‘very best favour’ as she would say, as she took the first sip and became all smiles and more child than adult. I felt little, and loved and happy. At an older age, when we might have had these gatherings with other families and there was a ‘kids’ table’, we could get as giddy on the sweetened wine as we liked. It didn’t take much more than a few stolen sips to make us giggle and howl with laughter and feel our oats at our own festive table.
This leads me to think about the Torah’s Joseph and his family, the subject of next week’s portion, Vayeitze, found in Genesis 28-32. I wondered, did Joseph and his brothers sit around their festival table and partake of sweet wine, too? Did they also become giddy and silly together like we did? Could all the differences amongst them, the jealousy for Joseph, become blotted out as they took this truce time to indulge in sacred moments of gathering together?
I read the story and wonder how hard it is for the family of a visionary like Joseph to let go of their fearfulness for his differences and recognize his unusual ways as gifts, instead. Joseph was different in appearance, both beautiful physically and also to look at, and also in how he engaged with the people and world around him. He did not allow himself the usual social inhibitions in showing what his gifts were, in how he perceived the world through not only his dreams, but also the dreams of others.
Joseph was a tattle-tale. He had the habit of exposing his brothers’ foibles to his father, who seemed to reward him for his forthrightness with a special coat. There is no definitive translation for the Hebrew words given in the Torah for this coat: כתונת פסים can be translated as a coat that extends to the wrists and ankles like a great coat, or it can mean a coat made of many strips of fabric. Most commonly it is translated as a ‘coat of many colours’. All of these nuances tell us something similar about the coat and the status it conferred upon Joseph, especially in his brothers’ eyes—that his father gave him the honour of favoured greatness.
How is it then that the father can see this emergent prescience but not the siblings? The strangeness of Joseph’s ways must have been an annoyance to his brothers who had to endure his tales and dreams and his perceptions of them from a dimension they had not yet reached. Or perhaps, it was that they had left behind their own natural pre-verbal abilities to perceive information intuitively by choosing to accept instead the structured external social systems of their clan and tribe. It is natural to fear someone who does not conform to the safety of the agreed upon social norms. The boundary between intuitively gifted and mentally ill are often confused, the similarities being the discomfort afforded by others due to the unpredictability or unconventionality of the gifted or ill person.
Other ways this might be expressed are gender differences. Perhaps the story of Joseph’s travails is a torah or teaching about homophobia or gender difference: after all, Joseph is hinted at as being rather effeminate by being beautiful of physique and to look at, not a particularly industrious shepherd, and is given a flowing robe by his father who dotes on him and rejects the advances of Potipher’s beautiful wife. These characteristics stand in contrast to how his brothers were and set him apart from them, creating the purpose for their plot to be rid of him and his outsider way of being.
It takes many years and much travail before he is settled and enabled to use his intuitive talents without retribution, as Pharaoh’s right hand man. And eventually his siblings, in their time of need, must come to him for aid. In what could have been a moment of ultimate revenge, Joseph instead remains loyal to his gifts and powerful abilities, and takes care of his clan.
I know this story began with a sip of wine a short while ago, but it is a memory that I believe we all carry. When was the last time you could let go into the reverie of childhood bliss, taking in whatever joy was surrounding you? Laughing together in gatherings without care, even if you don’t really know all the backstories in the room? Or listening without fear to your own joyous heartsong?
Joseph wasn’t a complete person as a youth. He needed those years of learning to navigate the reactions of others in order to become effective at being heard. Only then could he express his gifts to their fullest, as chief advisor for a powerful nation. In this story we get the chance to see how sometimes the youthful rawness of beauty and truth may need time to mature and ripen before it can be accepted. This takes patience and time, but eventually an adult can smile and look back at those wonderful moments of sweetness and warmth and give that giddy child a knowing hug and a wink.
Today is the winding down after a two-week shift as the On Call Chaplain for the local hospital. It has been an unusually full two weeks. Yesterday I spent the whole day, from 9am to about 5pm with family members on the phone and then at the hospital. It was the third call in for a person who was now a patient on life-support in the ICU. In all three calls, the family was wanting spiritual support to help them transition into the decision to remove their loved one from life support. Their request was for a means of navigating the imminent transition of a known life and spirit, knowing that soon that loved one would be dying.
I know these are medical situations of the most serious kind, and that the Social Worker is specially trained to help with practical decisions for arrangements to transport the loved one’s remains. Somewhere in there is wedged the pathos and every day organic trauma that comes with the death of someone who has been part of our life. Someone we may have taken for granted just the day before, such as was the story of two of these situations. Then, unexplainably, a catastrophic physiological event happens. Our body, which we assume will take care of us, suddenly malfunctions: In some cases, decades earlier than we would have guessed.
I am always pleasantly surprised when people who may not have any ties to a formal faith, will ask for spiritual care to come. They usually ask the Nurse or Social Worker. They may not have a ritual in mind, but just know that this is a time for prayer to an Unexplainable Source, whose spacious living room they may have just fallen into.
We walk in the constructs of our daily lives, but when natural events suddenly trump our constructed ones, we end up in the liminal space between the two.
My training as a Chaplain is a mix of construct and natural instincts. I come to the work because it is my nature, for whatever reason, to dwell in the liminal spaces. Knowing this has drawn me forward into finding the constructs that will allow me to channel this way of being and knowing into a practice that others can draw upon.
Some of those constructs are taking almost 2,000 hours of Clinical Pastoral Education, or experiential Chaplaincy training. With the guidance of Supervisors, I’ve learned how to navigate the narrow valley between the liminal spiritual places and the constructs of health care, family, and faith systems.
Although yesterday was formally my Sabbath (Shabbat), I spent it at the hospital working. The ethic is that taking care of a life comes before even the commandment to take a day of rest. Today was my day of rest and it has been good. The sun shone all day as a wonderful autumn treat. I had time to float out my nets and enjoy the evenness in the gentle swells between the liminal and construct states. Tomorrow will be another day.
“You see what fun you can have with your music, ha ha” The scratchy, flinty French-accented voice came from my summer oboe teacher, Joseph Robinson, who was patiently and warmly showing me how to play music rather than strings of notes on the instrument. He was lovingly making light of one of his teachers, Marcel Tabuteau, as his way of affirming the ordeal of taking on the playing this instrument, which I along with so many others brought onto ourselves, because we cannot imagine life without it.
What is it about oboes? I was captivated by them at age 13 when my Beginning Winds teacher showed us a scratchy black and white film about double reed instruments. That afternoon I had been prepared to drop off to sleep as soon as the lights were dimmed in the autumn heat of the band room. Instead of boredom, I began to hear earthy, unctuous sounds crying out of the projector’s sound box. I was transfixed, bewitched by the slender and seductive black ebony body of the oboe on the screen. The memory of it predominated everything in my mind for weeks, and finally, my flute teacher brought me an oboe to try for a few months. He handed me a questionably useful reed and the advice that he didn’t know how to play an oboe, but the fingerings were similar to the flute’s. I tried it and a crappy sound came out: success! I’d made a sound! After he left, I took it into my room and shut the door. More crappy, happy sounds came out! I was playing! After that, I played my flute music on the oboe. I was enraptured; my dog hated it. After three months, my music teacher asked for the oboe back. It was rented on trial, and it had to be returned.
For decades, I wanted to play oboe, and put the flute away and became a biologist. Then a homemaker and parent. When I turned 50, I started to find time for myself again and walked into a music store one day, thinking I could rent one for a month and either get it out of my system, or maybe…keep playing. I kept playing.
Much of my life these days is structured around playing the oboe. I no longer scare my pets, in fact my cat goes for her special listening perch when I start to play. I considered going to conservatory and making it a livelihood, but the reality of my increasing age caused me to listen to advice and keep playing as a passion. In the meantime, I began to develop my studies and livelihood as a Rabbinic Chaplain. I have had no problem finding intersections between my work in spiritual care and playing music.
There are times when words just are not right. Music is prayer without words. When Reb Zalman Shachter-Shalomi z”l died this year on July 3rd, I was in Oregon at the ALEPH Ordinations summer retreat program, along with most of the teachers in the ALEPH programs. When we heard the news of Reb Zalman’s death during the break in our morning classes, a reforming of our world began. People had been touched by Reb Zalman in so many different ways. Some had had very deep and personal relationships with him, others were colleagues, students, newly ordained, and some were his first musmachim, ordainees. I had met him for a personal moment last January, in a frame of stillness amidst a crazy busy conference room at the annual OHALAH gathering in Boulder, CO. He was very kind and loving, clearly appreciative of the efforts we students made to learn and then teach others how to live in the four worlds of doing, feeling, knowing, and integration. When I heard the news of his death, my mind immediately went back to that tender moment with the kindness in his eyes, and their beckoning instruction to share that kindness, and with strength and conviction.
Another student and I were scheduled to lead the next service in the afternoon that day. At first, some balked at the notion that two students would lead this congregation of leaders and teachers in this first gathering and service after Reb Zalman’s death. I was not afraid: I said who but his students’ students should lead this service? The faculty debated this along with so many other immediate decisions, and they came to us with the request for us to lead this service. My companion and I then spent the rest of the day together. We supported each other: her poetry was perfect for this service, and my oboe playing was a natural complement. We chose thoughtfully and deliberately what order things would be in, maintaining the liturgical flow, but with the colours of poetry and music. There had been rumours that my voice was not strong enough: and also loving encouragement that nonetheless, I was strong, and to find the way to use that strength in prayer leadership. I decided to open the service with ‘Adonai Ro’I Lo Echsar’, Psalm 23, composed by one of my teachers at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Hazzan Gerald Cohen. He had written the melody as a dedication for a friend who had died, and I always felt swept aloft when I played it.
We decided what to wear, bookended ourselves, her with colours and myself in golden hues. We went to the sanctuary and set up the room, and then dressed. It was getting to be time. One teacher wanted to lead the first Kaddish Yatom after Reb Zalman’s passing, the prayers of mourning. He suggested my partner read the psalm as the music was played. I confidently said this is a time beyond words now, and that prayer was also in music. He assented.
I now have to admit that playing this piece as an unaccompanied solo had always brought me many challenges, especially in endurance over the length of the continuous playing, the many rises and falls in emotions and dynamics, and the juxtaposition of difficult fingerings. Despite this, I have played the piece numerous times in public, and what I wanted now was to create an opening in hearts, to give the signal that it’s okay, go ahead and feel as we move forward together.
The time came, and I brought the instrument to my tongue and rolled the reed back into my lips. It was a good reed, one Joe had made for me, and it was good music, re-written for solo oboe for me by Gerald. It would be okay, everyone was where they needed to be. I played what I felt in me, from the timbre of that day and of others, and what I so longed to be able to do when I was 13. As often happens when I play at auspicious times as these, the pages of music disappeared, and rather than being fearful, I let go and disappeared too.
Towards the end of the piece I returned and knowing I had a good reed and instrument, brought the piece in to home with a dropping off of a pianissimo down into a soundless abyss. Then, my partner read her poetry, and I channeled my strength into leading the room in prayers. More poetry, prayers, and then a close of the service with my oboe. Uh oh, this last piece was such a low register, and I had not planned how much to play or when to let the congregation take over the melody. Somehow, it all blended, almost in a call and answer of melody and chorus. I put the instrument down and breathed. For a moment I looked at my partner, and then we were mobbed. Teachers and congregants came to us, grateful for the words and music, some in tears, others with hugs. We had opened a space together, poetry, music, prayers.
Why do I play the oboe? For me and for you.
What does a City of Refuge look like to you? is it a stone walled primitive city, a refugee camp in a third world country, an internal place where you go to be alone, to hide, to find peace or reconciliation, or safety? Or a place to go to chill out when stuff goes awry?
Cities of Refuge are the topic of last week’s Torah portion, Numbers chapters 34-35, or Masei. These are designated places to go for asylum for someone who has inadvertently killed another person. Why is this in the Torah, and why in these chapters? Let’s look at the topic from Judaism’s four levels of Torah study, or PaRDeS, used by Jewish scholars.
The acronym PaRDeS comes from the first letters of four words, Pshat (the literal meaning of the text), Remez (its allusions), Drush (the homilies that can be derived from it), and Sod (its mystical secrets)[i].
Let’s look at cities of refuge with these four levels:
Pshat, the Torah portion describes how cities are to be located in the new country. To accommodate what has been formerly a mass of wandering peoples, a city must have a designated place for those who have inadvertently committed murder. Why? Historically, justice was done in a literal way, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life. This was accepted law and suitable means of justice for nomadic societies. A more compassionate need to protect those who inadvertently kill someone needed to be established when movement stopped and people became tied together in cities: Imagine that you accidentally dropped a load of bricks on someone and then their designated avenger came to kill you, according to law. The confinement of city life would also mean close living quarters within its walls. The pshat understanding is that the innocent could leave their home and travel to another city for safe dwelling, something new for the settling tribes.
Remez suggests this alludes to something more tangible, the institution of community safe havens, transition houses, and identity change programs. It further alludes to our emulating the nonjudgmental protection of the Shekhinah when bad things happen to good people, a reminder of the always available Love of a Higher Power. It alludes to the settling of the people in a homeland and the need to realign values and laws.
Drush is a derivation of the word d’rash, or a homily. The moral lessons of the city of refuge are those that we can apply to our own lives. How often have you sought refuge from mistakes or criticism, taken a timeout from a relationship, a leave of absence from work or school? The lesson is to take regular time aside for daily self-examination, for looking at mistakes as part of being human, and ways to make amends to oneself or to another.We are encouraged to find a way to come home to ourselves. The Torah is encouraging us to do this by telling us to create cities of refuge in our personal country of dwelling.
Sod is the mystery. How do these cities of refuge help, after all? Are they an escape from reality, can they become an addictive retreat from responsibilities?
These cities of refuge actually have tight boundaries and restrictions on the user: according to text, once claiming refuge, one cannot leave until the Kohen Gadol, or High Priest, has died. No one can buy your way out, buy you as a slave and take you out, and you cannot leave on your own to return to family and home. The refuge city is a prison in many ways, much like the incarcerated singer in Johnny Cash’s song who laments how the train whistle is making him crazy, knowing that there are people traveling on the train while he sits stuck in prison. One can choose to take refuge, but there is a fine line between what is refuge and what is prison. The same could apply to things we do ourselves, things that begin as a welcomed comfort or diversion from troubles, but become confining in themselves if used beyond their healthy limits.
And who is this High Priest? The pshat might imply this is the Kohen Gadol of the Jerusalem Temple, and it may well have been understood that way. The literal translation of kohen gadol is also ‘great priest’. Is it possible that the Great Priest resides inside our own selves, in the form of a controlling ego?
How often does our pride protect us after committing an inadvertent mistake? In fact, the painful feelings might even feel as bad as if we’d committed a murder? The results are often denial, procrastination, avoidance, stagnation, bodily aches and pains. We find ourselves adrift, unable to connect with family, friends and work. A friend says his way of coping when such self-critical feelings arise is to ask himself, ‘but did anyone die?’ How are your resources or means of vanquishing your imprisoning tactics?
Finding ways of releasing ourselves from our own created ego-refuge ‘city’ requires engaging in practices such as prayer, meditation, mindfulness, aimed at a metaphorical death of our ‘great’ ego: we are released from the bondage of overextended pride or denial. This is hard work, well worth the reward of return to liberation.
We can again become priests of wisdom, yielding hardness into humility, making amends, forgiving ourselves, and returning to the lightness of our souls and others in wholeness and Shalom.
The City of Refuge, is it that far from where you live?
Purim is next weekend. For some, it’s the holiday excuse to dress up, be silly, an listen to the whole Megillah–literally: and we’re required to become so drunk that we can’t tell the heroes’ names from the villain’s in the story.
The story of Purim is called the Book of Esther. Growing up, I learned that Esther and her uncle Mordechai, were the heroes, and that Queen Vashti, King Ahashverosh and Haman were the bad guys. I loved eating the hamentaschen Haman’s Ears pastries, and twirling a loud grogger when Haman’s name was read in the Megillah to blot out the sound. Usually by the time the long night of reading and noisy silliness was done, it was getting late; I’d be ready to eat one last hamentaschen and want to go home to bed.
This annual ritual was something we did outside of our secular lives. The holiday was not relevant or even mentioned at grade school, as I recall. Yet, it was so big in my synagogue and family life. Our family photo album has pictures of my father dressed as for Purim in a costume that looked suspiciously the same as the one I wore at about his age, around 8 years old.
My ideas about who the heroes were or weren’t have shifted. What I heard as a little girl was that Esther was the good, beautiful queen, who replaced Vashti, the wicked disobedient one. Lesson: be beautiful and cooperative or you will be banished. Esther was rather passive, and it was her uncle Mordechai who had the instincts and push to urge her to save the Jewish people. It appeared that she had no reason to ‘out’ herself as Jewish to King Ahashverosh. It was Mordechai’s urging that caused her to step aside from her wealth and position, to petition the King with her beauty and good cooking to help her people.
The ploy was a success, and the condemned Jews were able to prevail.
Now I see a re-write of this story, especially on this rainy Vancouver International Women’s Day. Vashti was a disappointment in the story because she would not display her charms publicly to her King’s drunken banquet guests and his public. Perhaps like many of us women, she believed she was more than a rack to display a diadem from.
In fact, the King’s advisors saw that, and told him to get rid of her, lest all the women of his kingdom follow her example and become disobedient. So he banished her, to maintain order in the households of the kingdom.
The Purim story is not called the Book of Vashti, though, it is the Book of Esther. We are left with that scenario as an aside, and Vashti’s disobedience is seen only as important in that it creates the opportunity for Esther to enter the scene and later be able to help her Jewish people as a Queen.
I admire both women. Vashti makes a risky personal decision in emancipating herself from degrading treatment by her husband. Esther makes a risky public decision to use her charms and position to save her people. They both could have chosen to be passive and continue to enjoy abundance and comfort.
Yet, ironically, one has been vilified and the other celebrated. For women, saying No seems to have much worse consequences than saying Yes, even in the context of heroism. As little girls and boys that was what we learned.
Have things changed much? I am older now and can choose who my role models are. I like Vashti because she needed to draw a line in the sand for herself and women. She was so committed to this that she sacrificed her own welfare. It was not in vain though. Her piece of the story remains in the Book of Esther. Clearly it was important; her story could easily have been scrubbed out by early redactors. Her actions are those of a true leader and voice for freedom and from oppression. Look who else set the stage by saying No, some of whom did not survive to see the fruit of the seeds they planted in history: Martin Luther King Jr, Ghandi, Joan of Arc, Benazir Bhutto, Harriet Tubman, and today, Malala Yousafzai.
Things haven’t changed much. We still meet resistance if we need to say No. I admire Vashti and see her as a role model. She tells us, ‘Say it if it’s the right thing to do, maintain your self-esteem and that of others who need your voice’. I wonder where Vashti went? Perhaps she became just another invisible single woman, lost in the crowd, past her prime, alone. Maybe she found a place of belonging somewhere new. Her legacy remains for us to learn from.
Esther is also my role model; for how to do the right thing, even if you don’t really have to. Yes, Mordechai did have to urge her on, but then again, he set her up as a comfortable queen for Ahashverosh. Realizing that her wealth and status truly did put her in the best place to appeal on behalf of the Jews of Shushan, she decided to put her wealth to a purposeful use beyond herself. What she models is how one can transform from being insulated and comfortable, to seeing our abundance as the very means to reach out and make a difference for others. Sometimes it takes the outer voice, symbolized by her uncle Mordechai, that calls to us to reach out and make a difference.
Whether by inner convictions, such as Vashti shows us, or outer directors, such as Esther’s, both show us that women have strength and power.
We need not remain hidden, or only in supportive roles in the background behind men; the Book of Esther tells us that we have the power to make a difference, if we are willing to step out and speak, write, sing or perform our truth.
When we allow release to come, we find ourselves on the same sojourn through the wilderness our ancestors took; and if we allow ourselves to open to our potential, we may find the strength and maturity we so hope to develop along the way.
Ki Tissa is the section of the Israelites’ journey from Mitzrayim that takes us further along our way through the wilderness of discovery and formation. We leave Mitzrayim, Egypt, much like adolescents or runaways, with belongings slung hastily over a shoulder, barely wanting to look back.
Predictably, as soon as the thrill or high or novelty wears off, we are homesick for the familiar place, where our short memories recall fish and leeks to eat, and security.
As a loving parent who sees their maturing offspring lose focus, God finds that it is time to take a census, a time for our people to be counted and accountable for themselves to their Higher Power. It is time to say, Count me in, I’m my way to independence and responsibility, no longer to be kept and managed by our Egyptian overseers.
Part of becoming independent is surrendering to a Higher Power, of recognizing where our boundaries and limits of what we can realistically control lie. Here, in Ki Tissa, God instructs us to surrender what we can, to build the Mishkan. But, God does not instruct us all to do this in the same exact way: God, or our personal Higher Power, knows that we are not all the same, not all of the same talents, gifts, and abilities.
and those for whom surrendering their creative talents is their best offering, are to do so. They are instructed by God on how to smith, weave, sculpt and build the Mishkan from these materials.How do we understand this message?
One way is to take an account of who we are, and what our realms of abilities and being are, and what are not.
Another way is to let go of trying to be like someone we are not, or try to control how someone else is; maybe a family member or co-worker comes to mind. In recovery, we let go, and surrender to what our Higher Power asks or instructs of us.
When you are on your way in the Wilderness of Uncertainty,
Who will you answer as when others or your Higher Power call to you? How will you take inventory of who and how you have been, and where you see yourself now?
This is the message of Ki Tissa.