Ki Tetzei - Consolation for the Desolate

[For Congregation Ner Shalom, August 20, 2010.]

I've begun to feel a little desolate of late. First there was the usual stuff. Too much to do. So many responsibilities. So many people to answer to. And money worries. And anxiety about High Holy Days that need to come to life and soar but are still imprisoned in spreadsheets and notebook paper. Then came the unusual stuff. The end of my 40s looming days away. Loved ones experiencing illness or accident, ultimately harmless to the body but unnerving to the spirit. And then the news of three deaths among my friends, two in the last week. Not close friends. More friends of friends. Better than Facebook friends. Not people I would have called up for dinner or a movie. But people who, had I bumped into them on the street, would have merited a good, long chat.

Like all queers of my age, I lost countless friends back in the 80s and early 90s. The best minds of my generation, as Ginsberg might have said. But then the reprieve set in and lulled some of us into a blessed and well-deserved forgetfulness. And now, it seems, is the time for waking up. Because I've now reached the age where the normal bell curve is beginning - the first of my peers dying at disappointing but not quite tragic ages, victims of long Latin names that translate loosely to "natural causes."

So it was with that mood of underlying malaise that I approached this week's Torah morsel, Ki Tetzei. A compendium of laws, many concerning marital conduct, a couple about our stewardship of nature. It was not speaking to me. For every sweet and problematic mitzvah about protecting a mother bird when taking her eggs from the nest, there were ten problematic ones lacking sweetness and I, well, I was in no mood.

I was looking, it seems, for some comfort and it was not there. But, my eyes wandered across the page of chumash to the haftarah portion that keeps Ki Tetzei company. It is from the book of Isaiah, and it opens:

רני עקרה

Roni 'akarah.

Sing out, O Barren one.

A hymn of comfort, or supposed comfort, to the City of Jerusalem, after it's been laid waste and its inhabitants killed or marched off to Babylonian captivity.

Isaiah, or someone writing in Isaiah's name, elects to describe the aftermath of this public horror using one of the most popular and painful metaphors of biblical literature - "barrenness."

A popular metaphor because it works. It is an image of ultimate pain, a pain some in our community, some in this room, have experienced firsthand. And even those of us who have not experienced it connect instantly with the ringing pain of wanting and not having children, or with the psychic howl of having children and losing them. We may not actually know what that's like, but the terror of it is great enough to stand in for actual empathy. How much more effective a metaphor in the Biblical world, where self-actualization comes only through progeny, and where the payout of the whole deal with God is that we should be numerous as the stars in the heavens and the sands by the sea?

But it is a painful metaphor, too, because it misleads. The childless in the Bible, unlike in real life, never remain that way. They despair, but are then promised (and in fact get) children. Over and over. Sarah and Abraham, Rebecca, Rachel, Hannah. Childlessness in Torah is not a real-life condition but a narrative ploy that sets the stage for some miracle birth -- an unlikely child who goes on to overcome obstacles (such as getting born in the first place) and perform heroic deeds. But in real life, we don't experience that kind of reversal. And the Bible stories nearly taunt us with their heartless happy endings.

So the metaphor works for everyone except, maybe, those who have actually had that experience. It is always tricky when your very personal, very human life becomes someone else's great metaphor. What is left for you then? My very personal relationship with my partner has come to symbolize a threat to families I don't even know, and its validity voted on by the public in pretty much those terms. Or my loved ones who are intersexed, whose naturally atypical bodies become fodder for theories of gender fluidity, but who would simply prefer not to be gawked at or operated on by doctors. Sometimes we'd rather our lives not be symbolic of anything for anyone. Can't a cigar sometimes just be a cigar? Leave me my unique personhood. Don't use my body, my love, my life, my losses, even in your prettiest poetry or your cleverest theory.

So here in Isaiah, the akarah, the barren woman, is once again, alas, a literary trope, not only representing a certain kind of communal pain, but making way once again for a prophecy of reversal. "Roni akarah. Sing out, barren one, burst into song, for your children will be numerous." A standard prophecy that, in fact, proves true. The Jewish people do survive the exile and return from captivity and grow and spread across the world, even unto Cotati, California.

So it's a fine prophecy. But as words of comfort go, "sing out for your children will be numerous" totally sucks. Why tell anyone experiencing grief that things will turn around for them? It may be true, but we don't know it at the time and it can't be promised. They are empty words, far more soothing to the speaker than the recipient.

But, then, just when a seeker of comfort is ready to give up on him, Isaiah delivers what might be some of the best words of comfort our tradition has to offer. A beautiful bit of consolation and advice, more measured and remarkably real, something that works as a great metaphor and as personal consolation. It goes like this:

הרחיבי מקום אהלך ויריעות משכנותיך יטו אל תחשכי

האריכי מיתריך ויתדתיך חזקי

Broaden the place of your tent and stretch out the curtains of your dwellings, stint not.

Lengthen your cords and strengthen your pegs.

Some of you know the opening phrase, harchivi m'kom oholech, "broaden the place of your tent," as a Shefa Gold chant. Isaiah here is ostensibly readying Jerusalem for the future return of the exiles and the promise of new generations. Expand your tent, because you'll need the room.

But this advice, these words of consolation, work as well without a promise of literal reversal. How do we experience loss, especially profound loss or communal loss and not become smaller, narrower, more closed down? Isn't that ultimately the challenge of our grief? How do we not wither from it?

Isaiah says don't shrink. Expand. Spread your tent to catch the wind. Don't tighten your tent cords -- lengthen them! Almost an instruction for hang-gliding. But the advice here is not "catch the wind and fly." It is not "time to move on." Because the last element of this advice is to strengthen the tent pegs. "I know you feel uprooted, like a wanderer in a tent. But dig in. Root deeper. Hold fast." Or as Bette Davis might say, "Fasten your seatbelt. It's going to be a bumpy night."

Hold fast and expand. That's the way to survive. Not the only way. But the best way. Become bigger. Hold the full magnitude of your loss and make room for something else too.

Let your personal tragedies expand your heart rather than narrow it. Let our communal tragedies expand our hearts rather than narrow them. This is not easy, it might not be natural. Expanding makes you more vulnerable. But it gives you air to breathe. It lets new problems feel small.

I cannot help but feel that those whose grief at the tragedy of 9/11 moves them to deny people of conscience the opportunity to pray and do the work of their hearts freely have been shrunk by their terrible experience. That we failed as a nation to expand the place of our tents.

Isaiah's words of comfort do work for me. An invitation not to shut down, or not to shut down forever. I take comfort and try to expand with my losses. I have now reached an age where, if I live long enough, my peers will disappear with increasing frequency. My challenge is to make space to hold that truth. To hold these people in my heart. And to keep my tent large enough and loose enough and rooted enough to contain all the joy and all the pain that is still to come.

Harchivi m'kom oholech.

Expand the place of your tent.

And let us say: Amen.