Torah Speaks Steps

Eavesdropping at the Imaginary Yeshiva

From Kedoshim, 7th portion in the book of Leviticus

You shall not hate your brother in your heart, you shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear sin because of your neighbor (Lev. 19:17 ).

You shall not take vengeance, not bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself, I am G*d (Lev. 19:18).


Two friends are learning in chevrusa (traditional form of yeshiva learning, based on studying in cells of two).

One: what do you make of “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” in context?

Two: You shall not hate your brother in your heart, hmmm, that’s where we begin, cleansing the heart of hatred.

One: Of course, that’s obvious. Brother!

Two: Brother! Like us.

One: You shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear sin because of your neighbor. Now that we understand it in context, it’s unusual isn’t it, this progression from you shall not hate to you shall surely rebuke, why would you rebuke your neighbor? What has your neighbor done?

Say your neighbor is a drug addict.

Two: Oh my G*d.

One: Stay with me. Your neighbor is taking drugs. You don’t approve. You see it, you have evidence, you may have even witnessed it yourself. It’s not a theoretical problem. You remember Jamie don’t you?

Two: Poor Jamie. Nobody knew what to do for him, so we did nothing.

One: Yeah, well that’s what we got going here. You don’t approve, you know something is wrong but you may not even know what it is, but something is not ay-yai-yai so you rebuke your neighbor.

Two: You rebuke him?

One: Yeah, you do something. You tell the truth, even at the expense of relationship, you approach him and say hey — I’m worried about you, you do this, you do that, you don’t put him down but you have to do something. You talk to someone. It’s not a theoretical problem.

Two: You got that right.

One: You rebuke him, because to have that knowledge and do nothing? That’s contributing to the problem. I’m not using rebuke here in the sense of shaming him but in the sense of saying: stop. Drawing a line. Maybe even getting in his face. Hey – get some help. Suggesting how he might get some help.

Or maybe even going to somebody else.

Two: Wow. What a concept. Just like with Jamie. We did nothing, and you know what? When it came down, I felt kind of. . .you know. . .responsible. I really did!

One: Yeah, so did I. You know why? Because we didn’t rebuke him. But the verse continues, don’t think that I came with just this one word to rattle in a bottle like a coin. . .

Two: Stop with that.

One: Let’s continue with the verse: you shall not hate your brother in your heart, you shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear sin because of your neighbor (Lev. 19:17 ). Not bear sin because of your neighbor, that means, like with Jamie, it was our responsibility to rebuke him, but not to bear his sin. With Jamie, sin means sickness. Because it was, after all, his problem. But there’s the rub: it’s his problem, still we are called to rebuke him, but not to carry responsibility for his sin. It’s his illness, but still, we are called to do something.

Two: Yeah, wow, I remember with Jamie. When Yudie did say something, Yudie rebuked him, he turned it against Yudie. Who are you, Jamie said to Yudie, to get in my face? It’s my business, what’s wrong with you? he said to Yudie. So Yudie ended up feeling bad, bearing Jamie’s sin, but you know what? That was part of Jamie’s problem: place the responsibility everywhere but himself. I really see it now.

One: Yes, now let’s finish with our verse. Leviticus 19:18, You shall not take vengeance, not bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself, I am G*d.

Two: We rebuke, but we don’t hate, nor do we bear the sin — it’s Jamie’s problem, not ours — and when Jamie plays us like he did? We don’t get vengeful. The guy is, after all, ill. Not only do we not get vengeful, but we bear no grudge, we don’t judge him. That’s the hardest part. As a matter of fact, we love him. We love Jamie because only out of love will come the right action. Only through love will the healing happen.

One: You shall not take vengeance, not bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself, I am G*d. That’s the way of G*d, to know that if healing is to happen, it has to happen through love. No matter what our history is with each other, we cannot be a source of healing or help or truth or transformation for each other — because that’s what it takes with someone like Jamie, with someone like me, I’m no different from Jamie — that’s what it takes to be a healing force in another person’s life. No expectations, no blaming, no shifting of responsibility, no avoidance, no revenge, no judgment, only the truth. And love. It has to come out of love. Only love has that kind of power to heal.

Two: That’s what we could have done with Jamie. Here’s the principle: lead with love, always. It seems so simple, but it isn’t easy, and it isn’t obvious.

One: Maybe that’s the deal with these two verses. Notice that we don’t lead with love, but we come to love, after having moved through don’t hate, surely rebuke, don’t bear sin, don’t take vengeance, don’t bear a grudge, but — love. I am G*d: the way of love, the true course.

Two: Phew.

One: Good session.

Two: Yeah, thanks. Be here tomorrow?

One: For sure.














Coming Soon

Maybe she will come to our town.

Who. The Shekhinah?



Or: Tracking the Language of the Sefat Emet

I learned to consult with the Sefat Emet while studying with Avivah Zornberg in Jerusalem. I was a regular attendee at one of her weekly classes on the portion of the week, especially the sessions at the New Age Yeshivah where I had become comfortable attending.

My friend Moshe lived just down the street from the Yeshivah, and that’s how I found it, one summer when I was staying with him and studying the oud.

Avivah was teaching at the New Age Yeshivah. She had acquired a good following and her teachings were always something wonderful. She handed out source sheets that were numbered, usually beginning with Rashi then some of the other classical commentators and often ending with one of the radical English psychoanalysts or Kafka or D.H. Lawrence and then the Sefat Emet. The Sefat Emet was near the culmination of the lesson and something equally surprising or exceeding Kafka or R.D. Laing as applied to Torah.

I figured I should get to know the Sefat Emet; I found the material that Avivah brought down of his stunning.

The Sefat Emet is actually the name of his book, it’s not uncommon to be known by the name of your book, this one the Language of Truth. Yehudah Leib Alter was the rebbe of Ger (near Warsaw). He died in 1905. Avivah had deepened herself in his work and his commentary often appeared in her teachings on the parashiot.

I also used to pray in the synagogue of the New Age Yeshivah on Shabbes, and there Avivah and I were accustomed to nod to each other. I don’t think we ever exchanged words, but we exchanged greetings as if we knew each other. It was a spirited minyan in those days, many of the tunes were tunes from the Shlomo nusach (melody style) that was excellent for the mix of voices in the room.

Avivah began to recognize me at her teachings as a regular, and one evening when her husband who usually took the money was not present she gave me the cash box and asked if I would collect the money.

So I sat at the front table and took the money. There were books for sale, and questions to respond to, and schedules of her teachings to quote. Of course I knew nothing but I scrambled around and figured it out. From that evening on and for the months remaining of my sabbatical in Jerusalem, I sat up front and took the money, sold the books, quoted her schedule. Are you related? Someone asked me. Well, yes, in an elected sort of sense.

Ten years or so passed. I had not been back to Jerusalem. Avivah had written another book. She was on a book tour of the States, and the rabbis in my town were invited for a private session with her as she came right from the airport. We were to meet on the campus of the University, at the Hillel house.

I wouldn’t have expected her to remember me, we had never even exchanged names. I arrived a little late at the Hillel. Just as I got out of my car, she got out of the car of whoever picked her up at the airport and so we were walking across the parking lot towards the building at the same time.

She stopped when she saw me, as if in amazement and said, what are you doing here?

I live here, I said.

She looked confused. I wondered what had happened to you, she said. You live here? Since when?

Twenty years.

This confused her even more.

There’s an expression in the Midrash, jumping the road, k’fitzat ha-derekh. The midrash is often a mythic literature, a character may jump the road as if the intervening time and space do not exist. I never did explain it to her. After all, we really didn’t know each other, but we knew each other. I offered to take the money at the Hillel house too, but they had someone for that. Her driver by the way was a big shot in our community who until that day had paid no attention to me in twenty years. I never explained it to him either.

Sefat Emet on Genesis

There’s a vocabulary in the Sefat Emet that he returns to throughout his work. It appears in the first portion of Genesis, in a teaching about the holy Sabbath, and quoting one of the Friday evening prayers — God spreads out the sukkat shalom, the sukkah of peace – over us. This verb for spreads out is elastic, pores, it can mean several things.

Everything has its root in heaven, the Sefat Emet opens with, then quotes a Midrash: there isn’t a blade of grass that doesn’t have a star in the sky that strikes it and says: grow (Genesis Rabbah 10:6).

This Midrash often appears in what I call my mind with the verse from Micah: what does God require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8).

The Sefat Emet then quotes the verse, God separated the waters that were below the heavens from the waters that were above the heavens (Gen.1:7). The Sefat Emet is setting up a foundation of all mystical thought: there is a correspondence between here and There, so to speak, as it is among human beings, so it is in some cosmic sense.

Each creation below has a corresponding creation above. So on the holy Shabbat, the upper root descends and unites the two forces. This is the meaning of spreading the sukkat shalom, it is a unifying integrating concept, and so when we welcome the angels — the spiritual energies — we are awakening and integrating with the spiritual energies within and we are spreading that integrating notion not only horizontally all over the world, but vertically. As it is There, so it is here. Shalom, shleimut, wholeness in the sense of some grand spiritualized materialized integrative notion, the upper root and the lower root join in a spiritual sense, the upper nature and the lower nature join in a physical sense, and we have the celebration of integratives.

I love this language and it feels like the same notion that we encounter in the Raza deShabbat: the integrative power of upper and lower, the twos that find their way into One.

I wrote the following poem once I picked up the pieces of my mind and spent a while thinking through the implications of that idea.

Everywhere God Dwells Is Whole

I see the workers in the upper and lower waters

gathering the streams into their arms.

Once the divine integration was made in my presence,

delirious you said I love the world,

did you mean all of it or some of it?


I track the ascents and descents,

the upper root and the lower root will find each other

but don’t leave me alone. If the ends have been calculated,

I have not seen them. All my broken bones are whole,

my broken heart too, every shard complete.


I love the partial, the broken, individual, incomplete,

the fragment, the wounded,

I love the separate, you said,

because it integrates,

and even if not,

it is whole.










The Survivors


From the Survivors

Holocaust from holokaustus or holokautus (Gr.) meaning completely burned up,
as in an offering in Leviticus, as translated into Septuagint Greek

I had no intention to tell a Holocaust story. I used to think I didn’t feel up to it because I experienced it one generation removed. I don’t feel that way any more.

Trauma, I feel it and the older I get the more the trauma I feel. It was passed to me in a more oblique way.

I come from a generation in which our parents protected us from that story. There were many survivors in my neighborhood when I was growing up; we knew they were different, we knew they had a story but we didn’t know what it was. It would not clarify until later in life.

There was a seriousness and a sadness about the survivors that I knew in my neighborhood. I felt as if I knew them, but I didn’t know them. There were hidden parts to their lives, I knew this. There was a hiddenness in our world that was different from other people.

Not long ago I helped a family bury their mother who was a survivor of Auschwitz. I didn’t know her, didn’t know her daughter or any of the family, all had relocated out of my town in recent years. The mother was to be buried here so I volunteered to help them out.

In telling me about her mother, her daughter described a scene that her mother often talked about. As a young girl her mother had been in the selection line at Auschwitz and her daughter told me how her mother had described the dreaded Mengele standing at the head of the line making the selection. What was most chilling was non-verbal in the description: the daughter made gestures with her hands that were precise and I am sure just as her mother had communicated them.

They were simple gestures, obscene in simplicity and obdurate judgment. The picture of Mengele making gestures that signified this one lives this one dies was abhorrent. It sowed and planted a ghastly picture in my mind I have revisited many times since I saw it.

In this week’s Torah, the reading connected to the events that we schedule around the Nazi horror memorials, after the death of Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu, Moses refers to the surviving sons Elazar and Itamar (Lev.10:12) as survivors. That word survivors, I never noticed it before this year, ha-no-ta-rim. It’s used twice in that verse, once to refer to the sons and once to refer to the remains of the offerings made by fire. This is the book of Leviticus.

There is much written about the clumsy application of fire language and offerings’ language associated with the Nazi horror, thus the controversy over the word Holocaust. This year when I heard the story of the woman I buried, how inadequate the word survivor felt to me. It felt too passive for what this woman lived through; sitting with these people these lives these strangers who existed because she went one way the girl next to her the other way and in spite of the burdens laid on her fragile life she endured.

She endured became a mother and these people — her daughter kids grandkids a great grand child — they are ha-no-ta-rim, alive they thrive out of the devastation of mother’s early life. It seemed to me that’s more than surviving.

More. I recall my beloved teacher who walked out of Berlin just before the War and his response always to the perfunctory: how are you? Sur-vi-ving, in three sing-song syllables that even if you knew nothing about him you recognized a depth of story and triumph and ascent in that three syllabled response. Arbitrary and victorious, sur-vi-ving as in if not for this if not for that, I would not have survived and with a bow to those who didn’t.

Now this Torah, this word applied both to the remnant of the offering burnt by fire, and the two brothers alive ha-no-ta-rim, as against the other two who were not (they brought strange fire in Lev.10:2). Fire and survival, what is that link and what the danger what the aftermath?

And who gets through? Ha-no-ta-rim — we the survivors, the remnant, the rest of us. From the root yud-tav-resh that also gives extra, something from without, something acquired from an unexpected place, something brought in from without so to speak, or something that remains, remnant as if remnant was something inviolable and ascendant.

Ha-no-ta-rim, this year it has a necessity that transcends surviving. It’s a persistence about existence: what continues. What remains. What endures. What thrives.



Death Row part 1


Death Row part 1

This institution is the location of Death Row in my state. That sentence is an attention-getter but I found out when I visited at that time Death Row was integrated into the rest of the prison. It was not segregated, so to speak.

You mean the guys who are on death row are in your, uh, living area? I asked the inmate sitting across from me in the visiting room. I didn’t have the correct language.

Yeah, the next guy to go is right below me. I saw him this morning. As a matter of fact, he was just outside the door there. He refused a visit this morning.

He refused a visit? Why?

I don’t know. Just now.

Maybe it was his lawyer.

I walked in with a lawyer, he had a carrying case and a rolling file box full of documents and I offered to help him (he was older than me) but he told me he could bench press more than these bags and he does this all the time. In the hallway later as we were walking in together he opened with an irrelevant story about coming into the institution once with [horse] riding boots and how difficult it was to take them off, etc., I suppose his way of trying to roll off the rudeness with which he rejected my offer.

How many on death row would you say? I asked the fellow I was visiting. This was the first time I had met him and the first time I was given entry inside this institution.

About twenty eight, I think. It’s about one a month.

We were well into our conversation when death row came up, and in my head the picture from the movies I had of a separate unit, somber and isolated, etc., was all wrong. Frequently I am all wrong when it comes to my expectations about prison.

No, they are right here with the rest of us, he told me. You can see it behind their eyes, if you know what I mean. Every person is different, but most of them are of calm demeanor. I look behind the calm demeanor and I read them through their eyes.

Later I looked it up. There was a challenge to the death penalty in my state in 2006, on the grounds that the lethal injection protocol violated the Eighth Amendment (cruel and unusual punishment) because the instructions, the protocols around lethal injection were too vague, and were not administered by a qualified anesthesiologist.

The attorney general then, who later became governor, challenged and executions were resumed in 2007, and it does seem that the frequency approximated one a month. I don’t know if this was deliberate but it was mentioned by the man I was visiting as if it was.

I could see that executions happened with more frequency than under the previous two governors, but with even more frequency three and four governors ago, during the last decade of the twentieth century. The last decade of the twentieth century: more frequency of executions, anyone could see this with a simple search.

I didn’t want to dwell on the death row aspect of the institution, I had talked to this man several times on the phone but this was our first meeting. He had a lot to say.

He launched into his story though I don’t ask about their stories. I come to teach and listen and teach and talk and teach mostly and if the story rises I listen, if it doesn’t I’m fine with that too. There is always what to do for me when I come to prison, but since this was my first visit to this particular institution and I wasn’t approved for a class here, I could bring no materials with me. He had plenty to talk about and I listened and we talked a few things through, about the complexity of identities that he was working through, about what goes on inside himself and the institution, what it’s like for him, what he was looking to in the future, there were no silences as we sat head to head for several hours.

The details were rich in this man’s story but I am reluctant to reveal too much though it is interesting and relevant and right in the middle of the review of prison life and societal approaches to incarceration and justice, justice, justice, but it is his story – though there is much in his story that is all story – still it is his story and I’ll keep it to myself unless there comes a time I can be of service to him and others like him who are living within walls this way.

On the drive back I was thinking about what sustains, I often go there in my mind when I come out of the prison. The guys I speak to run into the wall of NO so often I think: could I run into the wall of no that often and keep coming back? I run into obstacles of no here and there and I can barely manage that, could I run into the wall of no as consistently as they do and still manage to sit with quiet and hope and possibility? What sustains?

I was telling someone I know who has been in prison this story and he interpreted it for me. In prison you live in a reduced world, he said, it’s a small space and you came into it sat and listened to someone who gave over his expertise. It’s what he knows about. You listened.




Attentive to Mental Illness-Mental Health


On Suicide

She wrote me a note before we did a community session on suicide. She was not in a place, she said, to come to the session but she wanted to make a contribution.

She gave me permission to use her words as a prompt for the participants to write about their experiences. The following is from the original piece she wrote to me, her words:

I am a survivor I suppose. I have attempted suicide several times in serious ways and I believe I am alive to share a few things I’ve learned. I feel some sort of purpose, I am always looking for that but here goes — I hope this helps someone.

People could listen more with their eyes as well as their ears. When you are contemplating suicide, you don’t conceptualize it. You may not express it.

 Be observant. Don’t ignore anything. Take everything seriously. I wanted someone to hold my hand – I’m not going to leave you, God will not leave you, I’m with you, I will never leave you, that’s what I wanted to hear.

And most importantly: this feeling is going to pass. You don’t think it’s going to pass. You think it’s never going away. It feels permanent.

 I wanted someone to say to me: I wish I could be there with you. Call me. Don’t be alone.

Some time later I met with her at a coffee shop.

I’m starting to feel like I want to get out more, she said, to be of service to others. I often feel a terrible negative energy running through my being, but I think I can offer something. If I could help someone else, it would mean so much.

Version: I love this piece for the wisdom it contains and because it came from such a difficult place in this person’s life. This was not an easy piece to write.

She was at a low enough place in her struggle that she couldn’t make the session, still she felt the necessity to give away some of what she knew. She wanted to help someone else. Where does this kind of compassion come from? All she wanted was to give a little away from what she had learned from her living.

What she wanted most was to be of service to others. And she knew that because of her life, she had some secret wisdom to give away: what it’s like to live with what she lives with, what it feels like from the inside, what she would have liked to hear from others, what someone else could have given her when she needed it most.

It think this is a remarkable document because it has a giving sensibility and because it has real wisdom about what it feels like when a person is struggling to stay alive, to find a way in the world when the inner world goes dark; to come back from the edge and describe what it felt like there.

It has strategies for living that come from the crucible of a person’s life. I think it’s a remarkable piece for all these reasons and every time I see the writer I remind her how much her piece has helped others because as she wrote: if I could help someone else, it would mean so much.

jsg, for No Shanda*

Jews Attentive to Mental Illness-Mental Health

*Shanda means shame, there is none




We were debating how to bring everyone into the camp

when someone said, there is no one outside the camp tonight,

there is no other, no them, only us – all of us – within.

This from J, maximum security prison, Missouri:

I am quite ashamed of my past. There’s no way I can’t be. And, I repent me mightily of the deeds of my past. I was only 18 when I became incarcerated in Illinois. I was young and scared. The Illinois prisons are quite different from Missouri ones. Illinois has hundreds of gangs and is much more violent . . . Probably because of my poor choices in the past, I am strongly committed now. Please accept my apology.


This from P, on parole from Missouri DOC:

Isolation, fear, suicidal –I was giving up on life.

I had no intention to live — once I got out.

I felt very weak, the officers knew I felt weak so they picked on me, the others picked on me too.

I eat slow so — I never got to eat a whole meal. Horrible food.

It was just horrible, did I say that? I never wanted to go back. My only solution: Suicide.

One thing positive – I had a friend. She would visit me. I never saw my family, maybe once, I had lost a family.

We got out on December 30th. My room mate was dead by January 3rd.

She was half my age.



We measure our grief

In years

One year, two years, twenty.

I am softening to my sadness


In a year of days

I remember I don’t remember every minute.

I want the seconds back

I remember and cry for all

I love the most.



I was married a long time ago. Had three kids. My wife took them and left. Been in and out of treatment programs. Been in jail a few times too. I just couldn’t stay clean.

I died on August 4th. The report reads heart failure, but I died of drug addiction. I hope my children remember the better days.


On the wall of the synagogue was written this: do not give in to despair.

I taught that there was no way around the darkness within, there is only the center. There is always the possibility of moving through, but through the center only. Takes courage.



He asked me
Are you sad today or unhappy?

What’s the difference?
If I feel bad sad or bad unhappy.

With unhappy you are attached to Sadness
With sad you are not attached.

Sad may be the condition of your Existence
We all know people like this.

And often they are great Creators
Or they find a way

To redeem the core of sadness

they build a life of beauty or service.

Many of the old Greeks were like this
Aristophanes never told a joke

Though he created many
So too the Hebrews Akiva was always laughing

Though he was as serious as dirt
About his purpose.

Sadness may be a condition
A response to the nature of things to disappoint.

We all imagine the world better
Don’t we?

But with unhappiness
you may be attached to your Version Of Yourself.

Tell a joke

Especially today.

Tell a joke and let me know
You’re pushing through Daily

And you’re neither a fool
Nor are you Numb.












I was called to do a funeral for a young woman who died from an overdose and left an eight year old son. I had never met her but I should have met her. She did eight months at a local treatment-residential facility and someone should have referred her to me, me to her, but I never met her never heard about her and a couple of months out of the facility she died.

I was called to do the funeral because I get this thing, etc., but the frustration for me to come in at the end of a story to make words to remember and explain and try for a little healing is a worthy activity but too late.

Elegist. How much more would I have liked to spend some time with her, to try to get her to the meeting I know has given life to so many.

But the treatment game is like other games, with all the same limitations of professional turf and incompetence and ignorance and carelessness. She was somebody’s mother, somebody’s daughter, not the expert’s mother, not the expert’s daughter, not the referring agency’s kid. Up against all the limitations of everyone’s profession, including my own, when the human need recedes; how many times have my own colleagues neglected to make the right referral. I am stuffed with these stories.

I thought of her when I greeted a man new to the meeting, it was soon after she died. This man I never expected to see again. His story had been public, all over the newspaper, involving crime and weapons and prison time and a lot of years incarcerated. He introduced himself to me at the meeting, asking if I remembered him. Hello, he read the balloon over my head betraying me, of course I remember you and I’m surprised you’re alive it read out above my head.

He had ten days clean after so many years, a long history of treatments and prison and one hell of a mess of life. When he returns and comes for healing, he comes here.

Here. Still. Alive.


For Shalvah, Shalvah means Serenity,

working the borderline between substances and Substance


Profound and Stupid Continued


Profound and Stupid Continued

Or: I Ain’t Goin’ Back

You know me from the prison. I was one of the group when you came to visit. Maybe you’ll know me when you see me. I got out.

Where are you now?

In town. Staying on my brother’s couch.

Do you have a car?

No. A bike. But it’s broke.

Is there a McDonald’s in walking distance?


Meet you there tomorrow at 1:30.

At 1:30 I walked in, he knew me but I didn’t recognize him. We sat down. He looked like eighty years old to me. I read out his shoes, he was wearing someone else’s shoes, cut out the toes so he could walk in them.

I asked him to fill me in. I confessed I didn’t recognize him.

During the course of our conversation, he mentioned he was one of the guys who insisted on walking me out when I visited because there was some dangerous talk among the skinheads targeting me that day [see story Profound and Stupid, skinheads with neo-nazi thought pardon the expression are the major problem in the institutions in my state].

That was me, he said, I was in them who walked you out. It was nothin’ really. They’re punks we know how to handle them.

He was a big man.

How old are you?

Fifty nine.

How long were you in prison?

Thirty years.

When he said thirty years I went quiet. The curtain parted for a moment and I sat staring at him the reality of thirty years of his life in that place penetrated and I struggled for a moment to hold back my tears, this wasn’t my life it was his life and I had no right to cry over his life but I wanted to, I felt myself cracked open to the sadness of that and his voice gentle, pleasant, without a hint of negativity.

Only this: I ain’t going back.

He said that a few times, in the same way: I ain’t goin’ back.

We talked a little more. I asked what I could do for him.

I need medicine. I can get my diabetes medicine but they won’t cover my ED.

Your what?

Erectile dysfunction. They won’t cover my Viagra.

I looked at him again in quiet. Thirty years incarcerated. Maybe he has someone. I wanted him to get that medicine. I was between laughing and crying but what I really wanted for him was that medicine.

Right, I heard myself saying, let’s get that medicine.

I called the free clinic and said, this is Dr. Goodman. I have a patient who needs to be seen and seen right away.

I got an appointment for the next day.

Do you have shoes? I asked him.


Let’s get you some shoes. How about your bike?


I’ll get your bike fixed. Would some food from the jewish food pantry help out where you’re staying?


Come on.

The food at the jewish food pantry wasn’t nearly as easy to obtain as Viagra and after two days waiting in their lobby (it was more disorganized than the bazaars of Kyrgyzstan) they got him registered and he went home with three bags of groceries.

It’s not easy getting help, I thought, unless you’re crooked.




More Raza de-Purim the Secret of Purim or Profound and Stupid



Profound and Stupid: More Raza de-Purim, the Secret of Purim

The story had become profound and stupid. Profound and stupid, I changed the title of this part of the story as soon as I wrote it: Profound and Stupid, a continuation of the Raza de-Purim, the secret of Purim.

At the end of the fast of Esther that year, I had made the two hour trip to the prison house where I had been assured [e-mail] that the auxiliary chaplain would meet me at the gate since I had visited there only one time previously and did not know the set-up. I wasn’t entirely sure I was approved to visit this particular prison, though I had e-mailed also the head chaplain in the capital who referred me on to the individual chaplain. I am trying to be diligent but sometimes I feel like I am visiting the Bastille –I should just sneak in and out.

 I made the trip anyway. When I arrived at the prison, I parked illegally and much closer than I did the first time I visited, having been advised that first time by the heavily tattooed guard who buzzed me in and out. The staff at this prison house was extremely kind to me the first time I visited, there was a chaplain to meet me and he escorted me to the chapel, and the inmates themselves escorted me out and I had the sense they were protecting me (a new feeling but not unpleasant).

This time there was no one to welcome me. The guard who buzzed me in didn’t recognize the name of the auxiliary chaplain. “There is no auxiliary chaplain,” she said definitively. She buzzed me through anyway. “Go upstairs and get your squawk box [personal alarm gizmo] and some keys. You’re on your own today.”

The prison is built like a camp out of depression era limestone that was mined from the area during the WPA, I believe. It has an interesting look from the outside, the textures of the wild limestone set within the formal patterning of brick, it is quite beautiful; within a series of buildings surrounding a large open perpendicular space which is referred to as the yard.

I walked up the stairs once through the gate to a window with bars and an opening on the bottom to push through the supplies from the room behind. In that room are alarms and radios and large circles of keys that open, I assumed, the various classic locks that kept muscular control over this depression era structure.

All I had was an ID which I had gotten from the State, convincing them through two TB tests and a conversation with a retiring prison guard [orientation] that I was qualified to visit four prisons that had Jewish inmates who were eager to welcome me to their institutions.

I stuck my head into the opening of the window with the bars and the sets of keys and squawk boxes, radios, etc. and said to the uniformed guard, “I’m going to the chapel.” That’s all I knew, I’m not sure I remembered exactly where the chapel was but I did recall it was at the far end of the yard because I remembered that the accompanied stroll back to the metal doors last visit was a long walk.

“You want keys?” the guard asked me. “Ok,” I said. I had no idea what to do with them, but they are keys, I thought quickly, and I’ll just figure out how to open the doors that do not open for me.

“You got tags?” he asked.

“No.” I think tags were small metal cut-outs that you leave in the barred room in exchange for keys and radios and such.

“Go make a copy of your ID.”

I went walking down the hall until I saw a copy machine in an office and I walked in and without asking and made a copy of my ID card.

I returned and passed the copy of my ID card to the uniformed guard behind the bars and I saw him hang it on a hook and he passed through the hole in the bars a whole ring of keys, at least forty keys, and a squawk box.

“Thanks.” I walked away with the keys to the whole place having no idea what to do with them, which door opened with which key, etc., only knowing that the inmates are not allowed to touch the keys. I was on my own.

I made a few wrong turns and couldn’t find the yard for a frantic moment or two; I was overwhelmed by holding the keys and became disoriented. I went to the window and there was the yard below me.

I exited out to the yard through one of the doors that move electronically and slowly and opened by showing my ID to a camera. I was alone in the yard. I tried to stuff the keys in one pocket of my jacket and the squawk box in the other but there were too many keys for a pocket.

I strode to the rear of the yard and walked into an open door where a group of men where taking off or putting on their clothes, I think it was a gym.

“Are you looking for the chapel?” How they knew this, I don’t know but I did not look like an inmate, they have uniforms and generally wear bright orange knit hats.


A guy took me outside the locker room and pointed me to the building next door.

It was locked up tight but I had the keys. I started going through them one after another, and it wasn’t too difficult to figure as this was a large door and I began with the largest keys. I opened it.

Inside I found a light. Every single room was locked inside. I found the room I was in the last time, a larger room with some tables and a chalkboard, some instruments and a little stage, obviously a place where several groups share prayer and study privileges. I found the key to that room too. Now I was inside and I was alone.

I had learned at another institution I visited that if I opened the door, people tended to wander in. I made sure the outer door was open and within a few minutes an inmate came in and sat next to me, staring straight ahead at the altar-platform in front of us. This was clearly a room used for prayer rituals.

“Mario,” he said by way of introduction.

“James,” I said.

He asked me who I was and I told him.


He told me how he had discovered the Hebrew Bible in a cell when he was first incarcerated. He told me he read it through, cover to cover.

I asked him if he remembered the story of Esther and he remembered everything. I told him that today was the Fast of Esther and I told him a story of someone whose name he might recognize and her holy fast and a story no one knows about how she broke that fast. A contemporary story.

I told him that God’s name is not mentioned in the book of Esther which is curious and crazy and I made the interpretation that it’s a sure sign that God is everywhere in the story, so full in the events and the personalities and the choices that we are at the level of all-over-God, God everywhere, in everything.

“I’m with you,” he said.

He knew what a Rabbi was and he then told me his whole story, from the age of sixteen to the present, which I imagine was about fifteen years. It was a tender story, clear and full of details, well parsed for meaning and a good sense of where it would go when he left this institution. He wanted to return to the small town he came from and he planned to go to College and I believed him.

Another guy came in and he greeted me in a rather formal, well rehearsed way. “I won’t ask how you are doing – for that is a question and I may not know you well enough to ask you a question. I will not inquire what’s new as that is empty and meaningless and meant only to break ice and engage in small talk. I will simply bless you in the way of my tradition. . .” and he switched to Arabic and quoted some of the holy Koran, which I was familiar with. I know some Arabic blessings and introductions, so I responded in kind. His name I will call him Elyasha.

He didn’t seem to know Mario so I introduced them. One of the Jewish inmates saw the door open from across the yard and he came, he didn’t know Mario either or Elyasha though he had seen them around. I introduced them.

We began to engage in a little circle of dialogue. Elyasha left soon, and returned after five minutes with a few other guys. “You’re the rabbi!” he said, “I should have known!” He must have asked around outside the chapel who is the guy with the not-orange hat in the chapel sitting around waiting for people to arrive.

There were two other individuals affiliated with the Jewish group who were present the first time I was there but absent this time. I asked about them.

“Sent away,” one of the Jewish guys, Jacob, told me.

“What do you mean?”

“Too much trouble, they sent them to a smaller camp.” I felt somewhat responsible since it was in part their letters to me that brought me to that camp in the first place.

“They started asking for too much.”

Now there wasn’t enough of them left in this camp to meet on the Sabbath. The prison rule in our state is that a religious group and its rights are defined by five members. In prison a minyan is five, and since the two had been sent away they only had three by my count.

“The Muslim brothers will join your group,” Elyasha said, “we’ll be here every Saturday and we’ll show you how to go about getting what you want.” Elyasha knew a lot it seemed about working the prison system. “The Muslim brothers and the Jewish brothers will make the prayers together,” Elyasha said, “you’ll have a group this Saturday and every Saturday.”

It was getting close to the time that I was supposed to leave. I asked the Jewish brothers and the Muslim brothers which way was east. Elyasha showed me the corner where the Muslim brothers faced east and made their prayers.

“Come with me,” I said, “quick,” because there were some other people starting to come into the room looking as if they were the next group.

We went into the corner facing east and I opened up my hands and sung out pretty and slow the holy blessing from the Priests in the book of Numbers:

Ye-va-re-che-cha Adonai ve-yish-me-re-cha.

May God bless you and protect you.

Ya-eir Adonai pa-nav ei-le-cha vi-chu-ne-ka.

May God’s face shine for you and be gracious for you.

Yi-sa Adonai pa-nav ei-le-cha ve-ya-seim le-cha sha-lom.

May God’s face always be lifted to you and give you peace.

As I was singing, I explained there is no partial, no individual, no incomplete – every single instance opens up onto the universal, and every partial resolves in the whole — everywhere God dwells is whole, quoting the Zohar.

I said something about salaam, shalom, or shleimut, wholeness, integration. To bless is to dip below and reach above, the root below and the root above, the b’reikhah the pool of blessings, the wild chute that whisks you into the root above, to the All, shleimut, to be blessed with a sense of everything, to live in a larger space than the separate self, the isolated, the un-integrated, the broken, the incomplete.

By this time the Christian brothers were coming in, they were the next group — a program called IFI I think — the room was filling up behind and some of them were watching us.

Their leader came over to me and said, “what is that you are singing?”

I told him basically the same things I told the Jewish and the Muslim brothers. He was holding my picture on my ID card that I had copied to get the keys.

“You’re the rabbi,” he said, “you’re supposed to give me the keys.”

So I gave the Christian brother the ring of keys, he seemed to know what he was doing, and I asked him for my picture just in case they questioned me on the way out.

The Jewish brothers and the Muslim brothers escorted me through the yard, on the way Elyasha scribbled something on a piece of paper, we were talking animatedly until I realized I was alone. There is a certain line they cannot pass in the prison yard and they were standing quietly on the other side until I turned around mid-thought and realized where they were.

I thanked them and hugged them all, told them I would be back in two weeks. “We’ll be here,” said the Muslim brothers, “all of us.” Elyasha gave me the paper he was writing on.

This is what was written on the paper Elyasha had given me:

Brother, your presence here is engulfed with the love of forgiveness. Please do what you can for all in this community.

Is there something in this story that is not-God? I am searching for it, this continuation of the Raza de-Purim the secret of Purim, though it began for me anyway profound and stupid and I could have missed it, I could have missed the whole thing, I could have not taken those keys, I could have turned around and gone home. I could have made a complaint about the fictitious auxiliary chaplain, I could have returned the keys telling the truth to the guard that I had no idea what I was doing. I could have missed the entire drama. Instead, I showed up, watched something profound and stupid unfold into something profound.



Heschel King


On the Yahrzeit of Heschel and birthday of King

 Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak
and may the earth hear the words of my mouth.

– Deuteronomy 32:1

Listen, O earth, to these wounds,
We have been pounded on the peaks,
elevated and alone.
Who ascends these holy mountains,
and why?

We have bled all over our back packs,
descended at the penultimate moment.

Snatched away from the precipice,
we descended into the valley
where we sat quietly with our eyes closed,
waiting for a bus, nothing loftier,
and we would have remained there
if not sitting next to us was the prophet Amos
watching for the light to change.

His skepticism, as always,
was an inspiration,
justice rolling down like water
and righteousness like a mighty stream.

All that was holy entered through our wounds,
the last place we expected.

Listen to the wounds, O earth,
pay attention to the bleeding sky,
brother elements, sister flesh,
pay a little attention will you,
at least give ear to these words.

These wounds.


Part 1


There is a picture of Abraham Joshua Heschel,
rabbi, human being, interpreter of inner Judaism and the prophets,
walking with Martin Luther King, jr.,
preacher, prophet, activist, redeemer,
walking together in the front row of the marchers,
Selma, 1965.

King and Heschel and Ralph Bunche walking arm in arm,
Ralph Bunche who received Nobel Peace Prize in 1950
for mediating armistice between Israel and the Arab states.

Look at the picture of Heschel, King and all of them,
this emblem of deep connection
bound at the arms they are, bound by the legs they are
the pictorial story of history and a return to coalition,
good intention, hope, hope, hope.

Our freedom stories have been told
in the same narratives,
we are characters in each other’s freedom story.


Part 2


“The day we marched together out of Selma
was a day of sanctification. That day
I hope will never be past to me—
that day will continue to be to this day”

— Heschel in a letter to King.

In that letter Heschel wrote he felt
“as though my legs were praying.”

Both men read their story into
the freedom narrative of Exodus.

The freedom arc of Exodus
and the prophets
two stories that transformed and guided their lives
for Heschel and King,
the Exile story was not theoretical.

We will not be satisfied, preached King,
quoting the prophet Amos, until justice rolls down like waters
and righteousness like a mighty stream.

This verse is engraved into the King Memorial
Atlanta, Georgia.

Exodus every day.
Freedom the daily struggle.
Justice justice justice.