By Etta Heisler
This is the text of a d’var Torah, Torah teaching, that Etta gave on the occasion of the 2022 Annual Member Meeting. If you prefer, you can watch a video recording of Etta reading this d’var on YouTube.
Change is coming.
What do we need to imagine
to be prepared?
I know I’m scared.
I know from brokeness there’s whole.
“Change is Coming” song by Molly Bajgot inspired by text in adrienne marie brown’s book Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds.
Welcome! Wow, it is so good to be here today, and so good to be in community with you always.
In the spirit of thinking about our community and congregation as an ecosystem, I am going to talk today about some ideas from adrienne maree brown’s text Emergent Strategy which draws on wisdom from nature and connects it to both the experience and strategy of social transformation.
A few quick words on brown – she is a writer, facilitator, doula, and activist, and describes herself as “growing healing ideas in public” through her work. What I love about brown, one of the many things I love, is that her world view draws as heavily as it does from the thinking of activists and community organizers like Grace Lee Boggs as it does from somatic healing and the science fiction writings and ideas of Octavia Butler. As usual, women and queer folk of color lead the way in theories of social transformation and I am going to share some of these teachings with you now.
When I was asked to give this d’var, I drove over to my friend’s house who was borrowing my copy to pick it up. I flipped immediately in the book to the 6th chapter called “nonlinear and iterative: the pace and pathways of change.” In this section, brown describes the Occupy movement, and the Movement for Black Lives (also known as Black Lives Matter) as movements that grew from “common longing, from a relinquishing of control, and from a celebration of leaderfull transformation.” (106)
When I reread that line, it hit me right in the kishkes. I felt it like a kick in my stomach. “LeaderFULL transformation.”
I thought of my dread when I learned Rabbi Ora was leaving, the rollercoaster of rabbinic interviews this spring, and the joy and comfort of watching our community at high holidays this fall. Initially, I felt a bit hopeless on the day we learned of Rav Ora’s departure – leaderless and wandering – until you all showed me that in fact, we are leaderFULL. When I read that line, it felt like I was looking at this room of us in the mirror. I smiled. I actually got chills.
After sharing some observations of these movements, brown goes on to describe grief as a “time-traveling emotion.” (106) As many of you know, AARC has been a container, conduit, and comfort for me in my grief through the loss of my beloved Savta, then through the general mourning of the pandemic, followed quickly by my niece’s sudden death last year. It is in this brief side discussion of the emotional experiences that come with transformation that brown talks about the infinite paradoxes of grief. She lists them in fact for nearly half a page, and in that list she writes first that “water seeks scale, that even your tears seek the recognition of community.” (110) I immediately imagined the room at the UU church where we hold our Yizkor service each fall filling to the ceiling with our tears, and all of us swimming around. A few lines down in the list, brown writes that “that the sacred comes from the limitations.” (110)
At this point, I put my book down and repeated that phrase to myself. “The sacred comes from the limitations.” Into my mind came an image of a Rose of Jericho – or resurrection plant. It is a kind of moss that grows in the valleys or dried riverbeds/wadis in the desert. I saw them often when I was in Israel/Palestine. It stands shriveled and gray until rains come and then it opens up, its stems and fronds fill, and the wadi is briefly full of green. This is one way that nature has evolved for both scarcity and abundance. That in times where resources are low, creation becomes desiccated, curled in, and protective. But it is also alive, resilient, observing, waiting. When the rain returns, it blooms.
Perhaps in our AARC ecosystem, we are a field of Jericho roses. The question is, is it the dry season or the rainy season?
As the chapter continues, brown describes a trip to Occupy Wall Street. In some detail she illustrates the variety of ways she observed people contributing and supporting one another in the context of a decentralized, “leaderfull” movement built on people’s longing, needs, and responses. I could smell it, I could hear it – the sound of raised voices rippling across the crowd repeating words on “the people’s microphone,” food tables, medics and tents and art and music.
And then, in a new paragraph, she writes one line:
“No one is special, everyone is needed.” (111)
We have a similar teaching in Judaism, in a hasidic tale that explains that Reb Simcha Bunam carried two slips of paper, one in each pocket. On one, a phrase from the Talmud: “For my sake, the world was created.” and on the other, a line from Avraham in the Torah: “I am but dust and ashes.”
No one is special. Everyone is needed. Scarcity and abundance. Sacredness born of limitation. Paradoxes that have been around as long as desert moss and the times of our biblical forbearers.
At this point, brown goes into some wonderful thoughts on anti-capitalism (111-113) that are less relevant to the points I am trying to make today, but it’s still really good shit, so I’ll trust you to check the book out and read it for yourself. All of it leads into her thoughts on how to think about those voices who are critical of change – the questioners, the “what-if”-ers, the “we have to know our goals before we can decide how to get there” voices inside of us. brown observes, rightly in my opinion, that because capitalism was created to make profit off of people, capitalism is best served when everyone agrees and takes predictable action. Well, transformation just doesn’t happen that way.
brown goes on to discuss that while critique is a necessary part of the learning and iteration that transformation requires, transformation, as brown puts it, requires a “high tolerance of messiness and many, many paths being walked at once.” (119) (brown describes this messiness as “chaotic beauty” (119) – though I prefer to think of it as a beautiful cacophony.) 😉 In other words, there are multiple melodies, numerous “right” ways for us to move forward. And furthermore these ways must, by their very nature, be walked and explored in parallel, rather than one at a time.
So, in the tradition of every good d’var Torah, I ask: what are we to glean from all this? What wisdom can we draw as we embark on another year of our congregational evolution? How can we navigate these parallel and divergent paths and be curious and open to the iterations that stand before us even if some of them confuse us or take us way off course? brown has a perspective on this too, a metaphor offered by one of her teachers, Jenny Lee at Allied Media Projects. brown writes that the role of organizers, of change makers, “in an ecosystem is to be earthworms, processing and aerating soil, making fertile ground out of the nutrients of sunlight, water, and everything that dies, to nurture the next cycle of life.” (116) In this paradigm, brown offers, failure does not exist. In fact, everything we do either grows deeper roots or “decomposes to leave lessons in the soil for the next attempt.” (116)
In the AARC ecosystem, all of the efforts we share, all that we discuss, imagine and make – every idea, conversation, question, experiment, disagreement, celebration – all of it makes the fertile ground from which the next blossom of our community will emerge. It will take time. We will stumble and get turned in circles. We will need to cultivate it with our own longing and curiosity. To get there, we must simply do as adrienne maree brown instructs us on page 120 and say “I invest my energy in what I want to see grow. I belong to efforts I deeply believe in and help shape those.”
May it be so. Ken yehi ratzon.
Read adrienne maree brown’s bio or purchase Emergent Strategy to learn more. To dig in even further, you can listen to the Octavia’s Parables podcast hosted by adrienne maree brown.