A Truckload of Turkeys and Time to Repent

On the bus back home from Iowa, we rode for an alarmingly long time beside an open truck packed with live turkeys on their way to be slaughtered. In the tight cages, their bodies were pressed together. They squinted at the passing traffic against the cruel 70 mph wind as their feathers whipped around. Some looked confused, others terrified, but most of them looked resigned to it. A few had already either passed out or died from the stress.

Of course, it’s anthropomorphizing to compare this to the Holocaust or other crimes against humanity, but bear with me. I’m an animal lover but I’m not a vegetarian, though I’ve tried more than once to make the break from meat. I’m fond of mammals, and it never bothered me too much to eat fowl or fish. I always buy free-range chicken and cage-free eggs anyway, and lately, I have been consoling myself with purchasing only kosher chicken and turkey. At least they would die in a humane way, right?

But they would still die. And I would eat them. Over and over. Feed them to my family. And how did I become so inured to this? Because I don’t see the process or participate in it myself. I have the luxury of all the dirty work being done by others so that I can grab my sterilized packs of squeaky-clean, bloodless meat and poultry at the store. Watching these live turkeys barreling down the highway toward their unsavory demise convicted me, heart and soul. Could I lift the ax and chop off one of their heads so I could have a nice dinner? Watch the blood run out, watch the decapitated body go limp, then pull the feathers and cut up all the parts? Not a chance. Even if I were starving.

I suppose if I had grown up on a farm and participated in the slaughter of livestock, I might feel differently. But I don’t think so. As I watched the hapless birds pass by my window, I had that sinking feeling I always get when I witness cruelty of any kind. We were not meant to do these things to other creatures. We were not meant to do these things to each other. It’s all wrong.

Anyone could say, hey, God meant for us to eat meat. Look at the daily sacrifice. Yeah, but when we were first created, we ate the produce of the ground and it was ours for the picking. Anyone could say, hey, those people are trying to take our way of life from us. Look at the wars in the Bible, sanctioned by God. Yup, but in the beginning, there was no destruction, only boundless creativity. Something went wrong. Dead wrong.

What is wrong with us that we turned our backs on paradise, that we keep opting for violent, impatient solutions to our problems rather than giving ourselves to each other, rather than trusting God to lead the way? We suffer and we suffer from our poor choices, and then we complain that it’s not fair. Look at the incessant grousing by the children of Israel in this week’s Torah portion (Numbers 20:3). They were continually rescued miraculously from their enemies, from starvation, from thirst, from plagues, and they were still kvetching every time they had a need that wasn’t met quickly enough.

Hungry? Go kill something. Feeling disenfranchised? Go herd a bunch of people you despise into cages and kill them off. Or—even scarier because we all think it’s perfectly okay—feeling unimportant? Do your best to be better than everyone else, no matter who you hurt along the way. This is so woven into our bones that it’s no small wonder the majority of us are either anxious or depressed, arrogant or devastated, striving or resigned. It’s all wrong. Dead wrong.

And it’s time to repent if we ever want to get it right.

 

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As You Were: Haftarah for Parashat Korach Meets George MacDonald

In case you haven’t read my previous blogs, George MacDonald (1824–1905) is my favorite author, poet, and spiritual mentor. More often than I can say, the Torah portion the whole Jewish world is reading each week matches up in some central way to at least one of George MacDonald’s poems from the 365 poems in Diary of an Old Soul.

It happened again this week. This portion is one of the most disturbing so far, at least to me, when the earth opens up and swallows Korach and his entire family alive for their rebellion against Moses and Aaron. Then the portion goes on to tell of a horrifying plague for the rest of the rebels, one that is curtailed by Aaron’s efforts on their behalf. Then, to make sure everyone knows that Aaron is God’s choice for leading the people in worship, Aaron’s staff is the only one that buds and produces ripe almonds.

Lots of shock and awe in this portion. I always wonder what the Haftarah will choose for its focus, and this week, I was stunned to see that it followed the same pattern as George MacDonald’s choices for this week in June.

In 1 Samuel 11:14–12:22, Samuel confronts Israel with its lack of faith in Hashem, warning them about their mistake in demanding a king like the other nations, when Hashem himself was their king and the reason why they were set apart from other nations.

At the same time, I read all week in George MacDonald’s visionary poetry about our failings and unrequitable yearning for purity and righteousness, our “low selves” and how trapped we are by being who we are. Pretty depressing stuff in both places.

And yet, there it is, like a beacon at the end of Samuel’s condemnation:

Samuel said to the people, “Fear not, you have done all this evil—but do not turn away from following Hashem, rather serve Hashem with all your heart. Do not turn away for [that would be to] pursue futilities that cannot avail and cannot rescue, for they are futile. For Hashem shall not forsake His people for the sake of His great Name for Hashem has sworn to make you for a people unto Him.”
(1 Samuel 12:20–22)

And there it is again, shining up from a set of MacDonald’s poems about our failure:

But now the Spirit and I are one in this—
My hunger now is after righteousness
My spirit hopes in God to set me free
From the low self loathed of the higher me.
Great elder brother of my second birth,
Dear o’er all names but one, in heaven or earth,
Teach me all day to love eternally.
(
Diary of an Old Soul, June 20 entry)

After all that slavery to ourselves, all that failure and rebellion, God lets us know that He accepts us as we are, because, as MacDonald points out, “To thee, the reconciler, the one real, In whom alone the would be and the is are met.” (Diary of an Old Soul, June 18th entry). What a relief to know that we are not forgotten or forsaken.

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A Little Aside: Writer’s Blog Hop

I was invited to this international blog tour by Nancy Bolton, author of the soon-to-be-released The Right Ingredients, published by Prism Book Group. This is her first book, a thought-provoking Christian romance about late bloomers (with a delightful sub-theme of baking), that I had the honor of editing in its earlier stages. How did I get that honor? Well, she’s my sister and I’m super-proud of her. Her second book, a fascinating historical tale about the Dust Bowl, is in development now. Check out her blog at http://boltonnancy.com/.

Nancy sent me these four questions (ah, the Four Questions!), which I have also passed along to three other fine writers to post when they can (see the bottom of this post to hear more about them).

What are you working on?

I finished my first novel about a 13-year-old girl’s head-on collision with her first serious crush. Right now, I’m focused on a YA/adult spiritual/philosophical novel about an unusual young man who just turned 18 and his vivid dreams about people in places on the other side of the world from his home in Chicago.

How does your work differ from others in its genre?

Maybe it’s not so different—I wouldn’t know because I don’t get a chance to read new fiction very much with my hectic schedule. I suspect there are trends in emerging fiction crossing over from sci-fi/fantasy to realistic character studies, but I haven’t found many contemporary writers who do that and also strive to wrestle with questions of faith as well. My favorite all-time author is George MacDonald, and if I could find a modern writer with his passion and insight, I’d dive right in. Let me know if you’ve found someone! Perhaps others also experiment with combining fantasy or other-worldly themes with a character’s interior journey, and I’d love to get my hands on some of it to see how they’ve pulled it off.

Why do you write what you do?

I’ve been fascinated since I was little with how powerful our perceptions are—strong enough to shape our reality and influence the events of our lives. When I write, I find myself exploring that dynamic. Nothing pleases me more than creating characters who take off with their own authentic worldview and almost start dictating their stories through me. It’s as if I abdicate my role as the creator and become a collaborator when I fall in love with them. I often think that’s how God feels about the potential we have in our souls to be with Him on a higher level.

How does your writing process work?

My writing process is pretty far away from a process. It’s more like primordial goop or something. I never know when I sit down whether I’ll be nitpicking at the edge of a scene until it pleases me or racing down the open right-brain highway full throttle in first-draft mode. I couldn’t tell you which I like more, so I’ve learned not to predict “what I’ll do today.” Since I have such precious little time to stretch out and write, I have learned to let it be what it is and not try to adhere to any sort of routine. When I read about writers who use writing software to organize their plot lines or keep index cards tacked to a wall, I’m in awe. My writing heaves along in unpredictable waves or trickles in sneaky little eddies with big gaping holes between sessions. But like an old friend, we pick up with ease where we left off and it just happens.

Here are three writers I know and greatly admire:

Deanne Joseph

The most unique author I know, Deanne is a natural storyteller and a champion of small children, animals, forgotten people, and forgotten culture. Her Middle Eastern heritage makes her too hot-blooded for this world and that passion leaps out from the pages of her writing. She has written reams and reams of children’s religious curriculum that enlivens and enlightens both the Jewish and Christian worlds, but her ability to deliver a compelling story really shines in her book, Number 176520. This book is based on two years of interviews with the hero of the book, Holocaust survivor Paul Argiewicz of blessed memory. Now in its second printing, this engrossing tale of how Paul miraculously survived several death camps is packed with photos and historical details and is required reading in many middle schools for their Holocaust curriculum. Visit her at http://www.paulsstory.com/ and leave a comment.

Tsvi Sadan

Dr. Sadan is an intriguing and thought-provoking Israeli author whose most recent book is called The Concealed Light: Names of Messiah in Jewish Sources. From the publisher’s website: “In the Bible and other Jewish sources, the Mashiach is deliberately assigned various eye-opening and specific names. Each of these assignations offers deep insights into the attributes and expected roles of the person of Messiah—far beyond the watered-down concept of the Messiah that modern culture offers us.” Tsvi’s no-nonsense, passionate voice has the ring of authority, backed by over 20 years of research and writing on Jewish and Christian views of the Messiah. He now blogs for the Times of Israel. You can find him on Twitter @elyahba and here is a link to his latest blog: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/hate-from-the-right-and-hate-from-the-left/#.U5guR_eLpl8.facebook

Betsy Storm

Betsy is the author of the recently published Bright Lights of the Second City, a wonderful collection of 50 fascinating interviews with Chicago luminaries, including each interviewee’s favorite books, music, poems, movies, and places. Her book is an inspiring collage of spiritual, interpersonal, and philosophical wisdom from many different types of leaders. The interviews provide myriad views of being true to your passion and going the distance. Owner and principal of a small but mighty Chicago PR firm, she is currently working on her first children’s book. Catch her blog at her website, www.betsystorm.com, under “My Thoughts,” visit her at her author site on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/AuthorBetsyStorm/app_173507912666342, or find her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/BetsyStormPR.

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Diary of an Old Soul: A Deep Drink from George MacDonald’s Cup

George MacDonald (1824–1905) is by far my favorite author, poet, and spiritual mentor. Lately, I’ve been more and more drawn to his poetry and found this gem in the May 26 entry of his compilation called Diary of an Old Soul:

My prayers, my God, flow from what I am not;
I think thy answers make me what I am.
Like weary waves, thought follows upon thought,
But the still depth beneath is all thine own,
And there thou mov’st in paths to us unknown.
Out of strange strife thy peace is strangely wrought;
If the lion in us pray—thou answerest the lamb.

Bear with me while I make the connection to the Haftarah for this Shabbat (Judges 13:2–25), the story of Manoah and his barren wife and a visit from God’s angel. The wife saw the angel first and knew of the divine gift of a son, then tried to convince her husband that she had seen an honest-to-goodness angel. Let’s call the wife’s response “the lamb” for now, my code for the one who simply receives a gift from God with humility. When the angel showed up again, the husband insisted on treating this “man” as an honored guest and feeding him dinner, rolling out the red carpet with all the striving and effort involved (we’ll call his response “the lion”). But then the husband saw the angel rise up in flames from the altar and disappear. He declared to his wife that they would now surely die for they had seen God’s angel.

I love the wife’s matter-of-fact response that if God wanted to kill them, he would not have accepted their burnt offering or had the angel deliver the glorious news of a son on the way. I wish she could have been around to talk sense into the people who disbelieved the good report of the land. Maybe she could have convinced them to simply trust and accept this gift without worrying if their efforts and human strength would be enough to conquer it on their own. That would have saved the long 40-year trek in circles through the desert.

Better yet, I wish she could have been around when God offered to appear and talk in person with the people of Israel at Sinai before they refused and asked Moses to meet God in their place. If they could have humbly submitted to this mind-boggling gift instead of preferring to have more controlled interactions with the Almighty, it would have saved centuries of separation from the Holy One and all that misguided reliance on human intermediaries.

But unfortunately, the lion’s type of response—disbelief followed by fearful rejection of God’s gifts—won the day on both those occasions and the pattern continues to this day. We have all turned away in fear, wanting to orchestrate things our way, even those of us who say we’re living our lives for God. Those who can’t believe in God’s existence because there is no reliable proof may indeed be less culpable and less hypocritical (and less nauseating to God, I suspect).

With Shavuot around the corner (today is Day 47 of the 49 days of counting the omer), the Jewish world is getting ready to celebrate the giving of the Torah on Sinai. Despite our fear and rejection, God gave us what became the “textbook of the soul,” as the Stone edition of the Tanach describes it. When MacDonald writes, “Out of strange strife thy peace is strangely wrought,” I hear Manoah’s wife counseling me to just accept the gift (like a lamb) and stop striving to be worthy of it (like a lion). Could it be that simple for all of us—believers and non-believers alike?

 

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Numbers, Numbers Everywhere: Does Any One Person Really Matter?

Brain Pickings, created by Maria Popova, is my favorite source for cool, thought-provoking stuff. In her columns culled from the thoughts of auspicious thinkers on deep topics, I often encounter the sad advice from enlightened minds that we should just accept the short-lived brilliance of our tiny lives. When it’s over, it’s over.

And they admit, despite their adherence to their core beliefs, that they wish it were otherwise. Alan Lightman describes our lovely but pitifully brief existence:

“And I think of the night-blooming cereus, a plant that looks like a leathery weed most of the year. But for one night each summer its flower opens to reveal silky white petals, which encircle yellow lacelike threads, and another whole flower like a tiny sea anemone within the outer flower. By morning, the flower has shriveled. One night of the year, as delicate and fleeting as a life in the universe.”

(Here’s the full article: http://us2.campaign-archive1.com/?u=13eb080d8a315477042e0d5b1&id=80e2448c31&e=9cb46d1435)

There seems to be an avalanche of agreement on this in the collective intelligence of admirable men and women. Perhaps we can gain comfort from the increasing numbers of very smart people who embrace this vision of a future that is no future at all. At least we’ll all go down to destruction and the nothingness of death together, right?

I sit here watching my little granddaughters at play. They are full of life, aching to grow up and drive cars, write books, take trips, bear children, and pursue meaningful careers. True to Lightman’s view, my body is decaying while theirs is blossoming, and it will all happen in the blink of an eye. I’ll be lucky if any of my acts of love or pontifications to them will be remembered into their adult years or by any of their children just a scant few decades from now.

Juxtapose this hard reality to what the Jewish world is reading this week—the beginning of the book of Numbers, the portion of Torah where most eyes begin to glaze over with the endless lists of names and numbers from each tribe and lineage. Why are these passages even here? How does such a mind-numbing list fit with truly sacred stuff like the Passover and the Ten Commandments?

I had an epiphany about that a few years ago. These ancient names and head counts that don’t resonate with me SHOULD resonate with me in a powerful way. They are evidence that not one soul goes uncounted or unnoticed in God’s sight. They matter.

To the Creator of the universe, nature is not screaming, as Lightman writes, “at the top of her lungs that nothing lasts, that it is all passing away.” Truth seems to meet us at every turn down both of these well-worn roads. But it cannot be just a matter of perspective whether we shrivel up to nothingness at the end of our lives or if we live on in another way, safe and loved, preserved and protected.

But more on that age-old argument next time.

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No Love to Be Found: Psalm 42

“He doesn’t understand my needs.”

“No matter what I do, I can never please her.”

What is the root cause of this disconnect between a woman and a man in a love relationship? It’s always the same old story—we need each other, we delight in each other, we can’t stand each other, we hurt each other, we stick it out as we contemplate leaving, we complain about each other, and we wait for years to get the other one to come around and give us the kind of love we want. While we are waiting, we are like the Israelites poised on the edge of the Promised Land: “peevish and discontented in your tents” (to quote Moses in Deuteronomy 1:27 from the Amplified Bible).

This is one of my all-time favorite translations, and it’s no coincidence that it describes the Israelites when they refused to hear the good news of the land they were about to enter. They preferred to hear the fearful report of aggressive, hulking giants and thick, unyielding walls standing between them and the wonderful paradise they had been told to expect.

In our love relationships, the giants are the unwanted habits, the nagging, the stony silence, the unending disappointments. Trying to change another person is as easy as fighting a fully armed, glowering giant. And the thick walls between us are guaranteed to lock us out of the love paradise we glimpsed during courtship.

So what do we do when we don’t get what we expected? We pout, we kvetch, we let our hearts fill up with bitterness. Off we go into an unforgiving wilderness for a long, grueling journey, aching all along for the place we thought would be our safe haven, where our perfect mate would be waiting with open arms.

With such poisonous vitriol in our souls, is it any wonder we can’t taste the simple sweetness that is still there? But it is still there. The seed of love that started the show in the courtship stage is still there. It took forty years of wilderness wandering for the people to finally believe that a forbidding landscape was indeed the portal to their heart’s desire. They finally decided to trust God. Can we learn anything from them to turn our relationships around?

Psalm 42 says, from The Message:

“Why are you down in the dumps, dear soul?
Why are you crying the blues?
Fix my eyes on God—
soon I’ll be praising again.
He puts a smile on my face.
He’s my God.”

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Just When We’re About to Give Up: The Shmita Year

The law of Shmita (letting the earth rest every seven years) means we can’t work the ground and plant again until the eighth year. Rabbinic commentary and common sense point out how unlikely it is that the sixth and most depleted, weary year of production from our overworked soil could suddenly provide enough food to last not only for the sixth, but for the seventh and eighth years as well.

Since we are called to rest along with the land, and devote ourselves to prayer and study for the seventh year (which is a mind-boggling expectation in itself), we need to be fed that year and for most of the following year until that harvest comes in.

Unthinkable! How could we, who are so focused on production and the work of our hands, possibly set that much time aside—not working or planning for our needs for an entire year?! It’s hard enough to do that for a whole day each week. I find my fingers itching to get back to my lists and my deadlines frequently each Shabbat. I have to keep my computer off all day or the temptation will be too strong to just check my emails from time to time, to make sure my clients don’t need me. You know the drill.

How could an entire YEAR spent only in prayer and study possibly put food on the table and money in the bank? Yet since ancient times, the seven-year cycle has been honored by Jewish farmers and somehow the people not only survived, but thrived.

What a level of trust it requires to set down our tools and open our hands to receive when we are so wired to do things, make things, and provide for ourselves. Yet if we don’t take that sacred time to rest and focus on the foundation of our existence, we may instead find the seventh year to be one of famine and burnout, destruction and loss.

Just as the tired, worn-out soil craves that seventh year of rest, many of us are just about to give up. We might be at the end of our energy, feeling useless or hopeless, unable to make it all happen like we used to. Strangely, this is exactly the right time to step back and trust, to stop striving and worrying. God has promised to take care of us if we’ll follow the plan, as counterintuitive as it seems, and dishes out a triple shot of provision to boot.

 

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