Thursday, May 17, 2012

Conquering the monsters beneath our bed... where the wild things really are

Cross-posted from the Rabbis Without Borders Blog at

I want to share the chorus of one of my favorite Indigo Girls songs with you:
So we’re ok, we’re fine, baby I’m here to stop your crying
Chase all the ghosts from your head,
I’m stronger than the monsters beneath your bed
Smarter than the tricks played on your heart,
we’ll look at them together then we’ll take them apart
Adding up the total of a love that’s true,
Multiply life by the Power of Two (words and music, The Indigo Girls, ‘Power of Two’)

This has been something of a theme song in my life, these past 11 or 12 years. Ever since I met the woman who, two years ago, became my spouse. In fact, we even incorporated the last two lines of the chorus into the Ketubah that we crafted with an artist-friend.

This past week, a great deal in the flow of the news cycle has caught my attention. Thinking about the monsters beneath our beds, or perhaps ‘where the wild things are’, it was notable that Maurice Sendak passed away this week at the age of 83. Hearing the news, I went online and watched his PBS interview with Bill Moyers from a few years back, and then the very different but quite entertaining interview that Stephen Colbert conducted with him just a few months ago. It was in the PBS interview that Sendak explained that the wild things were somewhat inspired by his first generation immigrant Jewish relatives – the aunts and uncles who had escaped Europe while they could still get in but, to a young child, were grotesque caricatures.

I know the ones he meant – they were probably just like the great-aunts and cousins, once-removed, that I remember –the ones with the lipstick that was painted so high that it almost touched their nose, the bright blue eye shadow and long, red nails. And the great-uncles with the hair growing out of their noses and ears. While Sendak lived his life as a secular Jew, he was clearly informed by that family history.

He speaks with Moyers about the courage it takes for a child to look the scary things in the eye and, in so doing, to be able to take back control not only of one’s fears, but of one’s anger. He had an uncanny ability to write from within the psyche of a child and paint the inner landscapes of their minds in vivid detail that they could so deeply relate to.

In the interview that Sendak gave recently with Colbert he mentions that he is also a gay man. Colbert, in his tongue-in-cheek but straight-faced manner, exclaims, ‘they won’t let you be a Boy Scout leader, but they’ll let you write children’s books?!’

While I certainly appreciate the joke, I found my mind considering the juxtaposition of Sendak’s ‘where the wild things are’ and another story that we saw being played out in the cultural and political sphere last week when first Vice-President Biden and then President Obama voiced their personal support of the GLBT community and of same-sex marriage. Sendak’s most famous children’s story can provide a means for young children to look at the monsters and many other things in life that scare them and, perhaps, to realize that they are not really scary after all. While for Biden, we might be amused by the influence of Will and Grace to make the scary and unfamiliar into something accessible and much more normative, it is the President’s words that most effectively demonstrated how we combat homophobia and those who feel strongly that civil equality should not be afforded to those whose love is not of the heterosexual kind:

‘I have to tell you that, over the years, as I talk to friends, and family, and neighbors, as I speak with my own staff who are in committed and monogamous same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together, when I think of those soldiers, or airmen or marines, sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf, and yet feel constrained, even though ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ is gone because they are not able to commit themselves in a marriage, at a certain point I’ve just concluded that, for me personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.’

The President voices what we know to be true about many things in life, and not only same-sex marriage: so often, fear is born out of ignorance. Once we get to know someone who is different from us, whether it be difference due to a physical disability, a religion, an ethnicity, and so on… we find that the world is a much more complex, colorful, and diverse place. We learn to see the partial truths in multiple perspectives. We learn, and in learning, like Max who stares into the yellows of the eyes of the wild things and does not blink, we confront our fears.

Some of the fears that have been voiced about permitting same-sex marriage include fears about how children are raised, fears about how the institution of marriage is understood, fears about the authority of some churches and other more traditional branches of religious faith groups. But, with the exception of the strongly held beliefs of some faith groups whose legitimate concerns arise out of their understanding of their faith teachings, getting to know people – people in our families, our communities, it becomes abundantly clear that these are not the monsters beneath our bed – these fears are not grounded in reality. And for those who are guided by a faith that appears incompatible with the President’s personal statement, it is important to consider whether such beliefs should be applied to civil rights on behalf of the entire population, many of whom are guided by different (and sometimes also religiously-informed) beliefs.

But I have other fears. My fears are borne out of conversations I’ve had with both adults and, even more heart-wrenching, with teenagers, who have shared their pain when they believe that society has taught them that their sexual identity and their religious identity or spirituality are incompatible. They’ve told me that the message they’ve received is that God hates them. Parents who tell me that they fear for their children and are so terribly afraid that their lives will be that much more difficult because they are homosexual. Some of these fears, too, are based on not knowing, and we can confront and learn to crown ourselves king over these too. But I am so terribly saddened that these are some of the messages that have been internalized from our political and cultural landscape.

This is why it is so important that the President and Vice President made the statements that they made. It is why it is important for people to speak out, and write articles, affirming the holiness of being true to our innermost selves, showing that faith and love do go together.

When Max realizes that he has conquered the wild things, he gets back in his little boat and returns to his bedroom, where he finds a hot meal is waiting. What stronger symbol of the unconditional love between a mother and her child can there be? For, once we have conquered the monsters beneath our bed, we come to understand the Power of Two – its all about looking each other in the eye, its all about relationships, and its all about love.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Counting up and Counting down

We are four weeks into the Counting of the Omer, the period of seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot. Once a time of waiting as grain grew in fields, ready for harvesting at Shavuot, this period of time later became interpreted as a time of personal growth.  We move not only from the experience but also the mindset of slavery, to the moment of Revelation at Mount Sinai, understood as a God-encounter where we can be at our most spiritually expansive; exhibited through a refinement of character traits and behaviors that see our actions most aligned with our values and beliefs.

The tradition of Counting the Omer is a practice of counting each day as we reach sundown.  But while each day brings us closer to the festival, the ritual asks that we count up and not count down.  Perhaps this is purely pragmatic.  Shavuot is the only biblically-ordained festival that is not provided with a specific date on a specific month but, rather, is described as seven weeks after Passover.  So we count up until we hit seven.  Perhaps the counting is also symbolic - the sense of moving upward as in a spiritual ascent, just as Moses ascended Mt. Sinai for the Revelation encounter.  But perhaps, also, the upward counting is a way of reminding us to keep moving forward.  Sometimes our life experiences see us looking back, trying to hold on to something that is gone.  We experience the pain of loss, as we should when we lose something, but sometimes the pain stays with us so much longer because of our inability to notice what is right in front of us today.  When we count the Omer, before reciting the formula for announcing this day, we number the previous day.  So, when announcing the arrival of the third day, we would say aloud 'yesterday was the second day' and then, after the blessing for counting the Omer, we announce 'today is the third day of the Omer'.  We recognize that we are formed by our  past experiences, but then we affirm the newness of this day - we will not be defined or limited by our past.  We face today as a new opportunity, with new potential for growth and spiritual expression.

This year, as I count the Omer, I am aware of my own journeying, and the tendencies to look back or look forward, but sometimes forgetting to treasure this very day.  Not long after Shavuot I will be journeying, from Congregation B'nai Israel in Bridgeport CT to Congregation B'nai Shalom in Westborough, MA.  It is a bitter-sweet time.  Looking back, I find myself trying not to count or notice that there is one day less left at B'nai Israel.  It has been such a wonderful spiritual home these past six years, and it is not easy to leave.  And yet, I am thrilled to have been given the opportunity to serve Congregation B'nai Shalom, and each time I return for another visit and meet more people, my enthusiasm grows.  I begin to imagine the work we will do there together.

Looking back... and looking forward... and sometimes forgetting to notice this moment and this day.
Hayom shloshim yom, sh'hem arba'ah shavuot u-shnei yamim la'omer. 
Today is the thirtieth day, making four weeks and two days of the Omer.