January 20th was a day that I could not have imagined as a young Jewish girl growing up in the Jim Crow New Orleans of the 1950’s. My childhood expectations rose from a world illustrated with images which included a sign in the window of a Laundromat that read, “Whites Only. Maids in Uniforms Accepted” as well as signs over water fountains and lunch counters designated separate areas for “Whites” and “Coloreds.”
I watched my Uncle Mose and Cousin Josh walk into the sanctuary of their Orthodox schul, where they got to pray and to touch the Torah, while I accompanied my Cousin Leah and Aunt Sarah up the stairway to the hot balcony where we sat with the women, barely able to see or hear the activity below. Could the girl that I was in 1958 have envisioned a morning when an African-American was inaugurated as President of the United States or an afternoon when I was welcomed as a member of the Los Angeles Board of Rabbis?
Jewish time is perceived in two very different ways. On one hand, we have the vector of destiny on which we march carrying the Torah. We move forward toward the messianic future. This is a future that will look very different than the world we know in the present. It will be a time of healing and peace- a world heralded by the Aleynu when it says, “and on that day, God will rule and God’s name will be One.”
On the other hand, we have cyclical time on which the Torah carries us. Round and round we go – year after year – season after season, we follow the same stories (and the same trees) in a holy repetition of the narratives and visions written on our scrolls and on our planet. It is our human task to braid this contradictory understanding of time, as both linear and cyclical together, with our own experiences, as we and the Torah spiral together toward something entirely new, clothed in that which has never changed. This evolving Revelation will make known the true meaning of God’s name.
I write from my office at the beginning of the month of Schvat. The sycamore tree, which I see through the skylight, matches the stories of slavery being told in the synagogue. The tree is bare and brittle, appearing lifeless and without a vision for the future. Yet there is an inkling of hope in the tiny beginnings of buds barely perceptible at the tips of the tree’s tiniest branches. Soon we will celebrate Tu B’Shvat, the New Year of the Trees. We are told that this is the day that the sap begins to rise in the trees. What today hints of the possibility of budding will soon appear swollen as the branches thicken and the fecund quickening at their tips beckons life and possibility with20such passion that it will take my breath away.
Each year, as Schvat comes to this Southern California landscape, the impossible happens as the desiccated branches suddenly ooze with life. Each year I marvel at this miracle of healing, which corresponds to the blossoming of freedom in the depths of slavery, which our people live out at this time each year as we read the book of Exodus and prepare to live it, “as if it happened to me.” Also corresponding to this astonishing time in America, this braid of history, Torah, and teva (nature) reveals the redemptive emergence possible even from the depths of winter and of slavery.
As a gift given to welcome new Rabbis as members at the meeting that followed the inauguration, Rabbi Mark Diamond, the Executive Director of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, gave each of us a black coffee cup on which the organization’s logo had been stenciled. The next morning I eagerly poured my morning beverage into it and silently recited my jocular appropriation of the blessing “Baruch Atta Adonai Elohanu Melackh Haolam m’hayyeh ha mettim- Blessed are You Our God, who rules the universe and gives life to the dead,” – my daily nod to the restorative properties of caffeine. As the warm liquid waited in my cup, I witnessed another miracle. The cup turned white and a picture of the skyline of Jerusalem’s old city emerged from the darkness. The images of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity rose together- an emblem of unity and peace, portraying a Jerusalem so beautiful that its antagonisms seem impossible. As I drank the coffee, I believed its message: Peace for Jerusalem is merely veiled in apparent darkness, waiting to be revealed as miraculously as blossoms from winter.Schvat is the month to celebrate hope. I witnessed the previously unimaginable transformation of painful childhood images of inequality as I watched the celebration of our new president and took my place at the Rabbinic table later in the day. Hope, like the sap of the trees of Schvat, rises in me as I sip my morning beverage and begin the day with a vision for Jerusalem as beautiful as the panorama that appeared out of darkness and heralds the day for which we pray.