Faith is what someone knows to be true, whether they believe it or not.
It seems straightforward enough, the injunction to “Love thy neighbor.” As is true of all oft-repeated phrases, we hear and speak it without pausing to think about what it actually means or entails. It sounds good, so it must be right, must be something we can all agree to, can all agree to do, and to teach our children.
Loving my neighbor is doable enough when it looks like being gracious with my colleagues, patient with my students, and forgiving of the sins others commit in traffic. But all of that’s the easy stuff, the “givens.” Not being an asshole takes effort, to be sure, on some days more than others, and for some of us so than others, regardless of the day. But not being an asshole is kind of the baseline for living inside of society and relationship; “love thy neighbor” in its fullest expression asks us to go past the bare minimum of human decency. Way past.
I am in the midst of teaching Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” surely one of the most impeccably crafted pieces of writing in American history. (If you’ve never read it, you should. Find the full text here.) For King, loving his neighbor meant affirming the humanity of those who refused to acknowledge the humanity in him. All men created equal meant equal on all sides, meant not falling into the trap of those who opposed him and resisting the temptation to demonize or lash out while still—and this is important—doing his utmost to highlight and bring an end to the injustice all around him which was, of course, put into place and perpetuated by his neighbors.
This week has been full of news stories that make it really, really hard for me to think about this loving-thy-neighbor business. I want to indulge in the feeling of hatred instead, or at the very least, a sense of superiority and self-righteousness. I want to draw dividing lines, “us” and “them.” But even if and even when those feelings are justified, I know they are not productive. They do not provide a way forward. They are not going to help me or anyone else grow. They are not what I want to model for my son.
I’m still, and probably always will be, working out what it means to love my neighbor while also being mad as hell about things that matter. What it looks like to be heartbroken by the actions of some of my human neighbors and at the same time remind myself that their lives have as much inherent value as mine. That they are just as human as me, as my loved ones, as my child. I know this to be true even if I don’t always believe it.
HAZELNUT LINZER COOKIES
These beauties were made using this recipe from Smitten Kitchen; I haven’t reproduced it here because a) there’s no way I could get the wording/instructions any better than Deb, and b) the only adaptation I made was to use jam (some strawberry, some apricot) to sandwich the cookies instead of chocolate-hazelnut spread, since I am apparently the only person on the planet who does not care for Nutella.
Love, of whatever shape, nature, or structure, is probably the best thing we humans have going. It’s this unaccountable miracle, and I, for one, welcome the chance to celebrate it. As silly of a holiday as Valentine’s Day has become in the mainstream, I am happy to use the day as a chance to take stock of all the things love has given me, the ways it continues to expand my human capacities, and how grateful I am for the gift of its presence in my daily life.
Shmoopy as it sounds, this weekend I hope that you feel present to the love in your own life, no matter what you are or aren’t celebrating.
As seems to happen from time to time, I took a longer-than-expected hiatus from blogging. And as has become my custom, instead of discussing the circumstances co-occurring with this hiatus—which are not interesting in the least—I’d like to just jump right back in, like a conversation with an old friend that stops and starts over the course of weeks, months, years, but feels somehow natural and continuous.
I went to a funeral today. The father of two former students died very, very suddenly, and we gathered outside, in the cold, to remember him. I didn’t know the man well outside of knowing his children, but to the extent that they are a reflection of and a credit to him, I do. Given the circumstances, it is impossible for me not to feel zoomed into their shoes; they are a handful of years younger than I was when I lost my dad, also suddenly. That handful of years is a distance, though, a flight of stairs’ worth of footing that I had and they don’t and still, still, the unmooring. The despair. The heavy, daunting work of grief and the seeming impossibility of absence. I can imagine–and I can only imagine–what this feels like for them.
Death is where Judaism really gets it right, I think. One of the things I love about Judaism is its pragmatism, its sensibleness; Judaism knows that what you need in the face of mind-numbing loss is someone or something to tell you what to do. You need ritual. You need rules. You need to hear the same prayer you’ve heard recited your whole life, only this time it’s being recited for your father, and that means something. You need some kind of structure, because making a decision—even one as seemingly insignificant as figuring out what to wear or what to eat—feels like an impossible uphill.
Jewish funerals aren’t sentimental. Today’s service contained no explanations, no assurances that everything would be alright, or indication that this death is anything other than tragic, awful, and hard. And yet, and also within the service came affirmations of God’s goodness: despite circumstances, despite loss. If God is only good when God is good to us, then what, indeed, are we worshipping? As it says in the Book of Job: The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.
Death is the condition we are all bound by, but seem much too easily to forget. And while I do not think it healthy to live in fear of death, I think it essential that we live in remembrance of it. To acknowledge that we are, in fact, entangled with death all the time, whether we let us ourselves see it or blind ourselves to it. Lessons don’t offset the loss, but that doesn’t mean death doesn’t have things to teach us. I saw it today in the faces of my students as they sat in support of their classmates, as they let their parents hold them at the gravesite, as they enacted the very beauty and terror that are the poles of human existence. It’s always both. It’s always, always both.
adapted from this recipe
This has become my go-to meal to gift to new parents or to deliver to a grieving household. It freezes well, so there’s no obligation to eat it right away, and it’s vegan, which makes it friendly for almost everyone. Pack it up with a nice, crusty loaf of store-bought bread, a green salad, maybe some goat cheese. Makes a big batch so you can keep some at home, too.
water, chicken stock, or vegetable broth
1 medium-to-large Italian eggplant
1 cup green lentils
1 yellow onion, diced
diced peppers of your choice—depending on desired heat level, you could do anything ranging from very mild bell peppers to Anaheims, poblanos, jalapenos, or (much spicier) serranos . We always have fresh peppers from the garden, the heat levels of which vary, so I usually taste a bit and then gauge from there. Keep in mind that removing the seeds & ribs from the peppers will also turn down the heat!
1 twenty-eight ounce can of diced or crushed tomatoes (I like the Muir Glen organics fire-roasted kind)
4-5 cloves garlic, minced
¼ cup pomegranate molasses
Handful of fresh mint (you can do cilantro instead—different flavor profiles, but both work with the stew!)
½ tsp. ground cumin
¼ tsp. smoked paprika
¼ tsp. crushed red pepper (again, balance/adjust this against the amount of fresh chiles you’re using)
Peel the eggplant in strips, then cut into planks length-wise and score each plank with your knife, making a cross-hatch pattern. Place the eggplant on a baking sheet and salt, letting stand for 30 minutes before rinsing, squeezing, and dicing.
If you plan to make this on the stovetop (as opposed to the slow cooker), you can par-cook the lentils in water, vegetable broth, or chicken stock. Let them simmer for about 15 minutes before draining & reserving; they should still be toothy.
Meanwhile, sauté the onion in a good glug of olive oil, adding the peppers after the onion starts to soften. Toss in the garlic last, and let everything get fragrant over medium-low heat, adding in the spices last. Turn off the heat and pour in the tomatoes, stirring to incorporate.
To bring everything together, you can use a slow cooker (cook on low for 4-5 hours), or a large pot on the stovetop (simmer, covered, for 45 minutes to an hour). Either way, you want to layer everything together; tomato mixture on the bottom, topped with some lentils, topped with some eggplant—repeat. Pour in enough stock/broth/water to cover it all, drizzle in the pomegranate molasses, and let it do its thing.
After cooking but before serving, taste for spice and salt; you’ll almost certainly need to add the latter. If the stew lacks “zing,” add a bit more pomegranate molasses. Top with the fresh herb of your choice. As is the case with all soups/stews, this is even better the day after you make it.