Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Elul 5771: Renewing Our Days at Freedom Ridge Ranch

The Jewish year 5771 has been a year of changes. T
his has been reflected in my blog, in my daily life and in our family's approach to Jewish life. Last year, I completely missed writing a post about Elul at all, and the posts about our Jewish holidays have been short or entirely missing. Although we did celebrate them, our celebrations were different--especially in the springtime of the year, when we were caught up in the most protracted move I have ever made, complicated as it was by the Engineering Geek's retirement, surgery and frequent travel. However, this summer--as we got settled here on the ranch--we began some practices for our Jewish life way out here, far from any organized form of communal life.

Change, even good change, even planned change, is hard. It is endings and beginnings. For me, starting a business, investing in that business, buying property, moving out of a house I loved, learning, learning, learning--sometimes the hard way--all of these things create a lot of emotional stress. For the EG, retiring from a career at the National Labs, a work environment that was becoming increasingly bureaucratic and difficult to fit himself into, leaving the work itself--which he loved, learning how to organize his own work, forming his own Engineering firm and dealing with the financial changes this all entailed created stress that matched and exceeded mine. For the CIT, making the decision to move to a new school in mid-year, making that move, meeting new people, adjusting to small-town life, planning for life after high school, and taking a great deal of responsibility for animals and the infrastructure of the ranch, all made for his own adjustments.

The confluence of all of these individual changes definitely put great stress on each set of individual relationships--husband to wife, wife to husband; mother to son, son to mother; step-father to step-son, step-son to stepfather--and there was a great deal of family turmoil as all of these relationships had to be negotiated anew. For not only are the parents transitioning to a new phase of life--retirement, new work and new plans, but so is the boy becoming a man, planning his next moves, working out how to be up and out and yet remaining attached to the ranch, work that he wishes to inherit.

And of course, there is also everything that is happening in the outside world, a world that is becoming increasingly unstable as it approaches a Crisis period, the Fourth Turning of the Saeculum. Increasing financial stress upon our country, and the crash of economies in other countries; the increasingly dire realization that--like it or not--there is an implacable enemy out there that threatens our country and our world; and for us, the rise of the oldest hatred, the virulent antisemitism, expressed this time through a threat to the very existence of Medinat Yisrael--the Jewish State.

As the world labors to enter a new cycle of seasons, as the generations enter new phases of their own lives, and as we make huge changes, we have found the need to establish new ways of reconnection to our heritage and our religion. All these stresses, coming together as they are, require a strong central anchor, a place of coherence, in order for us to generate the faith in life and in ourselves so that we can weather what is coming with strength of spirit.

So as the physical requirements of the move receded into the past, and as spring became summer and the emotional turmoil began to manifest, we knew we had to establish a different kind of Jewish life. At one point in June, when the smoke hung in the air and the rumors of evacuation were upon us, we knew it was going to be divorce, murder or a positive evolution to our marriage. At this time, when it looked like we weren't going to survive ourselves, we happened to unpack our Ketubah--our marriage contract. And we read the contract we had made: to establish a household within the People Israel, and to nurture our lives through the cycles of Sabbaths and Holy Days.

So we began to turn again, a little earlier than Elul, or our Elul began a little before it begins formally. We are not certain which is true. So we each established for ourselves our own person ritual of prayer and study, more of less formal as we each felt we needed. As a family, we have always observed the Sabbath together, but during this past year it had become disorganized and perfunctory. Into this latent framework we breathed new life, making it a point to appreciate each other through the formal ritual of the Friday night Shabbat ritual. To this we added a casual, communal service on Shabbat morning, including Torah Study. As it has been summer, we have been praying this service together on the porch, developing our own minhag (custom) about who leads and who responds during the different prayers.
And then before we eat lunch, we make Shabbat morning Kiddush. And in the evening when three stars appear, we make Havdalah.

As always, I am amazed at the truth of the saying about Torah from Pirke Avot: "Turn it, and turn it, for everything is in it." Each week, the portion says something to us about the things we have been pondering, or about what is happening in the world. Soon we will celebrate Sukkot, our first here at the ranch, and this phenomenon of the eternal relevance of Torah to our lives and the life of the world is stated in the readings from Kohelet (Ecclesiastes): There is nothing new under the sun when it comes to events created out of the relationships of person to person and community to community.

There is nothing set in stone about this routine we are establishing. We still have to travel to Albuquerque to care for our house, to take care of other business, and to fulfill appointments. When we do, our comings and goings do not always go as planned. And so, when we are there instead of here, we reconnect with our now far-away Jewish community by attending Friday night services, and then having a more simple ritual at home.

There can be, we have discovered, Jewish life when one lives 30 miles from nowhere, and 200 miles from the nearest synagogue. The bands of connection to ritual life and community have to become elastic, and the ways that we relate to it must change. At the same time, we are learning that in some ways, those connections become more necessary and more important.

I have learned again that Jewish life changes with the lifecycle, that the cycle of the year and the circle of one's life are wheels within wheels, ever turning, bringing us back always to that stable and necessary center.

Blessed is the One who renews our days as in days of old.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

9/11: Remembering Amalek

Although this past weekend was not as I expected, that is not why it took me until today to write a post about 9/11. It is true that I spent the day itself taking down bookshelves that we bought from the local Borders, and that the transmission on the truck went out, keeping me camping out at Ragamuffin House in Tijeras with no internet.

But the whole truth of the matter is that the delay was about more than those logistics. It was about the unexpected emotions of that day, brought up, whole from the past. I am not sure why this anniversary was different than the nine that preceded it, but it was. I think part of it was the realization that this year there is still no Freedom Tower, that we have not really dealt with an enemy who murders civilians at work, making war that we are told not to acknowledge. That there are people who would have us put the memory of that day away from us, as easily as we discard the column in the Los Angeles Times, as if the lives of the innocent can be so easily dismissed.

But even though the main-stream media has conspired to keep the images and sounds of that day away from us, I do not need to go to You Tube to find them, for they are seared in my mind's eye as if it had happened yesterday: The tower burning, black smoke in the clear blue September sky; the second plane and the people who jumped to their deaths holding hands, to escape the flames; the towers falling first the second, then the first, in a cloud of smoke and ash that pursued fleeing New Yorkers. And later, the candles lit--this one for the first tower and that for the second--at Friday evening services at the end of that terrible week.

This year the Shabbat of September 10 Torah reading, Ki Teitze, included the commandment to blot out the name of Amalek, and was read thus:

"Remember what Amalek did to you on the way when you were coming forth from Egypt; How he happened upon you on the road and attacked you from the rear, killing all of your weak ones (the women and children) while you were faint and exhausted. He did not fear G-d. It shall be that when the Eternal your G-d lets you rest from all your enemies all around you, . . . you shall blot out the name of Amalek from under the heavens. Do not forget." (Devarim 25: 17 - 19)

I could not help but translate it in my own mind as: "Remember what Al Quaida did to you in your own land out of a clear sky; How he came upon you at your work and attacked you without warning, killing your civilians and those of the nations while you were attending to your lives. He did not fear G-d. . . You shall destroy the very memory of Al Quaida from under the heavens. Do not forget."

These verses are found among quite a few miscellaneous laws and commandments, rules and regulations, and early in the same portion and in previous portions there are laws and commandments about how to conduct wars. There are different kinds of wars discussed. Those which are defensive, that is when the land is attacked from without, obligate everyone--even the bride under her chuppah--to take up arms against the enemy. Other wars, called the King's wars, which are wars for territory and booty, allow individuals to refrain from taking up arms altogether for various reasons. (In the Book of Samuel, in the Nevi'im, where the people demand a king, it becomes clear that such wars are not considered altogether kosher by the Prophet Samuel who speaks in the name of the Eternal, telling the people that if they get a king he will take their wealth to fight wars of conquest and make their sons run before his chariots). However, none of the wars discussed elsewhere have a Commandment of Remembrance attached to them. The commandment here is unique.

Amalek is depicted as entirely evil because he does not attack the vanguard of the Israelites where the warriors are, thus conducting an honest war. Rather he attacks the rear, where the women and children and animals walk, those who are not warriors and not prepared to defend themselves. The commandment to remember what Amalek did and to blot out the name of Amalek is the commandment to entirely destroy those such as Amalek, who in his cowardice, attacked civilians going about their lives.

This tenth anniversary of the attacks by Al Quaida on 9/11 has been one of great regret and difficulty for many Americans, as we take stock of where we are in terms of defending ourselves against an act of war conducted by terrorists on our own soil and in a civilian place of commerce in New York, as well as against the Pentagon from where our warriors are commanded. The attack on the World Trade Center is an attack like that of Amalek, an attack on those not prepared to to defend themselves, and who were engaged in the honorable act of trade and commerce.

There are two things we ought to be doing, two things that even people of the Bronze Age understood. And we are being told by the leftist press and their masters that we should do neither.

First, we are commanded to REMEMBER. "Remember what Amalek did to you . . . Don't forget." To maintain that memory is important in order to honor the innocents who died that day, and the importance of each life taken, leaving behind an absence and pain to those living who loved them and counted upon them. To take a life, we are taught, is to destroy an entire world: the worlds of those who must mourn, the worlds of deeds undone, the worlds of children never to be.

There are those who wish us not to remember, like the leftist American shilling for the Islamo-fascists by writing for Al Jazeera who advised that "we get over ourselves." But it is not ourselves that he wants us to get over. It is the sacred memory of those who were attacked, their lives torn from them unfinished that he wants to erase. And there are those, like the New York Times columnist (may his name be erased), who wrote that it is we--and not Amalek--who ought to be ashamed. It is he who ought to be ashamed for giving aid and comfort to an enemy and forgetting what that enemy did to us.

It is also important to not only remember those killed on that day, but what was done to us and by whom. Such memory is necessary in order to respond, to mete out the just due that the enemy has earned by such a cowardly evil. Do not forget--we are told--do not forget to blot out even the memory of the enemy from under the heavens.

In Jewish memory, we connect all tyrants who have tried to destroy the weak, the civilians, the innocent, and the whole Jewish people, to Amalek. From Haman to Hitler to Imadinnerjacket (may their names be erased)--we call them all Amalek. They are to be despised and they are to be destroyed so that their evil does not persist on earth. By their words and their deeds they have shown that do not deserve the respect that memory brings from decent human beings. We, the living, should act so that our lives are free of them.

As civilized people, we no longer think that this means that we ought to wipe out all those related by blood or belief to the Amalek's of the world, but who have refrained from committing such an attack. But the commandment to blot out the name of Amalek does mean the destruction of those who planned and/or financed and/or supported and/or committed this act of war against civilians who were not at war against them. To do so is self-defense, but further it is deterrence. To remember what Amalek did to us and to blot his name out from under the heavens is to demonstrate to anyone who might be an Amalek-wanna-be that this is what will happen.

This applies to bin Laden, who met his death at the hands of soldiers, who were entirely correct in shooting him, for he was at war with them. And it applies to Al Quaida, and to the governments of those places that supported his effort to attack us. By their actions against the innocent, they have given their destinies over into our hands, and it is up to us to determine what it means to utterly blot out the name of Amalek from under the heavens.

This 9/11 was subdued. Our memories are still tinged with loss and anger. Not because we need to get over it, nor because we ought to be ashamed. It is so because we are being told that those who are responsible are not responsible, and that we should not fight against them, because it is we who are somehow guilty: guilty for existing, for taking up space on this earth, for our prosperity and our way of life. It is those who commit this sin of moral equivalence who ought to be ashamed.

As we go into the next years, we can continue to cherish the memory. And we can refuse to submit to unearned guilt. And we can determine what it means to blot out the name of Amalek from under the heavens.