Justice, Religion, Sex & Gender, Uncategorized

The Terror and Joy of *Feeling*: Channah's Legacy for our Spiritual Activism

Editor’s Note: Following yesterday’s post by Sarra Alpert, here is another piece about the Rosh HaShana Torah readings, re-visited as we read those passages again this coming Shabbat.  This piece was given by Mary Otts as a derasha at the Mishkan Chicago community.  —aryehbernstein
by Mary Otts
As a child, I spent lots of time on my knees, glass rosary beads floating over my fingertips, staring at paintings of saints on the walls of holy buildings. Prayer smelled like the incense wafting through the cathedral and sounded like the reverberation of the kneelers being dropped onto the tile floor. While my mouth moved—still moves—effortlessly around the words, “Hail Mary, full of grace,” this Mary was distracted by a clumsy inadequacy around what it was I was really supposed to be doing in these moments.
Many years later, I’ve found G!d in the hum of the Bet Midrash, in the gentle correction of my chevruta, in the letters of the Gemara, in every single time someone who thought they couldn’t learn Talmud is empowered into finding their place in our Tradition. I find joy in P’sukei d’Zimra, community when we stand together during the Amidah, and revelation in the melody of Eitz Chayim Hi, but prayer—that magical thing that is supposed to happen in between the lines of liturgy—prayer is hard for me still. And, yet, particularly this past summer, I have needed to pray.
I have needed to pray because just watching has seemed so far from adequate. This need began for me, I suppose, with a young child—her name was Shamiya. She was shot to death just a few miles from here at a sleepover while she made s’mores. This need grew as social media flashed images of so many children in so many places who were abandoned, bullied, displaced, Ebola’d, gunned down, hated, ignored, lonelinessed, massacred, neglected, policed, rocketed, unloved, violated…to death. And this need overflowed every time I heard someone insist that we couldn’t express feeling lest we condone…lest we agree; or any time that there was an insinuation that these children deserve their circumstances—these kids do live in bad neighborhoods after all. And every time there is an overwhelming attitude that I, as a white person, as a north-sider, as a Jew, as an American, as a Queer person, as a human being shouldn’t care so much or even at all about those people’s suffering.
And, yet, there is tremendous blessing. I mean—please—I live in a time and place where I, Mary Margaret Elizabeth, get to have a job talking about, facilitating, and doing Queer Talmud all day; where I am part of multiple communities—including this one—who are demanding more from their Judaism; where I went home to challah and brisket and a family of friends last night; where I get to be surrounded, supported, and loved by all of you folks. I have a life where blessing is not simply present, it’s very tangible. As I’m sure it is for many of you.
There is this seemingly endless gap between blessing and suffering. And that’s why a world in which I calculate, analyze, intellectualize, watch…suffering is so wholly insufficient. Because anything less than feeling suffering, anything less than letting that pain penetrate into the very core of my being, anything less than letting the misery and wretchedness enter into a dance…into a wrestling match…with all of the blessing and love and warmth in my heart is simply incomplete.
One of the connections of the Torah and the Haftorah readings today are two women, mothers, who cry out from the depths…min hametzar…to G!d. We just read that the Torah says of Hagar as she is asked to watch her child die, “She lifted up her voice and she wept” (Genesis 21:16). In a few minutes, we’ll read that, despite the fact that Channah was so loved by her partner, she suffered greatly because of her infertility (I Samuel 1:1-17). While the patriarch Abraham, the one who, just three chapters earlier, argued with G!d on behalf of strangers (Genesis 18:20-32), TWICE submits to actively contributing to the attempted demise of his own children.  ‘That’s just the way things are,’ he seems to have said. Hagar and Channah reject this apparent reality and demand their children’s right to simply be. Because they are not thinking. Because they are feeling. Because they are trying to reconcile what they hoped the world to be with what their world actually is.
The haftarah will tell us that Channah knows an abundance of love and she knows wanting. We will see her belief in a G!d who provides and her fear that maybe that providing won’t be for her. Channah knows what it means to be presented with the one thing she wants in this world and to have give it up. She knows what it means to lose and to praise at the same time. It is this constant lack of harmony that causes Channah to reach out from a “bitterness of soul” into prayer. It is this wrestling that makes Channah the model of what Jewish prayer should look like.
Prayer is what happens when we walk around the world without callouses while we still hope for comfort. Prayer is the expression of the friction that happens when we are able to hold the pain and the loss and the misery of this world while simultaneously holding onto the beauty and the ecstasy and the hope. When we allow all of our suffering to collide with the tastes of a joyful meal, the hope of a first kiss, the warm words of a good friend, the Divine beauty of a piece of music that winds its way into our bones and burrows itself into our souls. When we wrestle with the dark and the light in an attempt to create a picture that reflects our full, and sometimes messy, realities.
There is profound goodness in the world—you needn’t look much further than this room to feel that—and there is a profound aching.
You want to know why it’s difficult for me to pray? Because it means feeling so very much. All of the hurt…all of the love…without being subsumed into the binaries of either of those feelings. Without escaping into the thoughts in my head. Feeling. And standing in feeling can be so terrifying. It means being here in complete vulnerability with you today and trusting that I am capable of holding onto all of my joy and all of my sadness in the same breath without running away—that I am not simply capable of it, rather that it is how and why I am here with you today. It means believing that you—all of you—are here to do this work, too.
David Whyte, in his poem, “Self Portrait,” writes:
It doesn’t interest me if there is one G!d
or many gods.
I want to know if you belong or feel
If you know despair or can see it in others.
I want to know
if you are prepared to live in the world
with its harsh need
to change you. If you can look back
with firm eyes
saying this is where I stand. I want to know
if you know
how to melt into that fierce heat of living
falling toward
the center of your longing. I want to know
if you are willing
to live, day by day, with the consequence of love
and the bitter
unwanted passion of your sure defeat.
I have heard, in that fierce embrace, even
the gods speak of G!d.
Our task today is to reach inside of ourselves…to find that sadness that threatens to extinguish us, to drown us, to swallow us whole. Find it. We each have it: fear, sickness, abandonment, death, depression, heartache. Find it. Let it squirm out of its hiding places onto plains of your heart. Let it mingle with your happy places. Let the darkness and the light make love—pushing and pulling, giving and taking, amorously struggling for position. And now, as one of this community’s great teachers would say, “Memorize that feeling.”
Rainer Maria Rilke writes in his letters to the aspiring poet, “You mustn’t be frightened if a sadness rises in front of you, larger than any you have ever seen; if an anxiety, like light and cloud-shadows, moves over your hands and over everything you do. You must realize that something is happening to you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand and will not let you fall.”
Our ability as a community to pray today and always, but especially during these 10 days, rests on whether or not we—like Channah—can trust ourselves to feel and the people around us to be compassionate witnesses of our vulnerability. I trust this community. We must be bothered. We must be able to tolerate our discomfort. We must commit ourselves to learning and building the skill of feeling another’s loss. We must be moved to cry, to cry out, to raise up our voices as an offering.
It is this feeling that will connect us, and these voices that will summon the G!d in each of us back from exile.
Shanah tovah umetukah
Mary Otts, Chicagoan, Queer woman, Jew-by-choice, food professional and much more, serves as “Producer”, aka, RaMaSH (Rabbinic Advisor to Making Shit Happen) at SVARA: A Traditionally Radical Yeshiva and is active in the Mishkan Chicago community.  

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