Parashat Balak: Blessings, Not Curses. Really!

imgresThis week’s parasha literally features an ass. While in this case it means a donkey, it’s an apt word to describe much of what I’ve seen in the media over the last few days, but I digress.

In this week’s parasha, Balak, whose name literally means “waste,” hires Balaam to curse Israel. Balaam finds that he can’t do it and instead, his donkey blesses Israel with the famous words, MaTovu Ohelecha Yaakov, Mishkinotecha Israel. How good are your tents Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel. This piece of text starts our daily morning liturgy.

In the last few days, since the Supreme Court declared gay imagesmarriage legal throughout the land, I’ve heard many curses from this nations leaders (here’s where the asses come in), many of whom want to be President. Ted Cruz, Canadian-born senator from Texas and presidential candidate, said, “The last 24 hours at the United States Supreme Court were among the darkest hours of our nation.” Really? Darker than 911? Slavery? Pearl Harbor?

Former Arkansas governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee called for “Christian leaders to channel Martin Luther King, Jr. by resisting the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of same-sex marriage…”I don’t think a lot of pastors and Christian schools are going to have a choice.” Really? There is a little thing called “separation of church and state” in this country. No one can force a clergy person to do a wedding that they don’t want to. As a clergy person, I know this well! And frankly, no one wants 2016possiblegopcontenders101you to marry them if you don’t want to.

Senator Rand Paul, second-generation Presidential candidate, suggests that government should get out of the marriage business altogether. In an op-ed in Time magazine, Paul says, “I believe all Americans have a right to contract.” The libertarian in Paul is suggesting that marriage is all about contracted rights and thinks government control of marriage is out of control. While I don’t disagree with him on the government over-reach issue, I wonder. Really? Is that all marriage is to Paul? A contract? It has nothing to do with love? Community and family recognition? And yes, rights and obligations.  I wonder how Mrs. Paul feels about his comments?

Presidential candidate Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal put out a statement saying, “This decision will pave the way for an all-out assault against the religious freedom rights of Christians who disagree with this decision.” Really? How? How does the marriage of a gay or lesbian couple affect anyone else’s marriage? Would the marriage of a New Orleans couple seep into the governor’s house?

According to the NY Times, right after the Supreme Court decision, Jeb Bush released a statement that he believed in “traditional marriage.” Although, to give him credit, he did say that we should respect one another. But, really? I wonder, what traditional marriage is he talking about?

I hear many say that marriage, like in the Bible, is between one man and one woman. Like Abraham with his wife Sarah and his surrogate wife/mistress Hagar? How about Jacob and his two wives and two concubines? Or is it like King Solomon and King David who have many wives and girlfriends…who can keep track? David was so bad that when he saw Beersheba, he sent her husband to the front line of the battle. Guess she wasn’t married anymore, so she was fair game.

Or is it the traditional marriage of financial exchange? The Talmud says the groom must give the bride “kesef,” gold, the original dowry. Is that the traditional marriage that Jeb Bush speaks of?

donna-reed1Or is it the marriage of the 1950s where dad came home from work, had his scotch and sat down to a dinner made by his stay-at-home wife and perfect children? I clearly remember Donna Reed vacuuming with her pearls on. I couldn’t help noticing that my mother didn’t wear pearls when doing any housework after coming home from her full-time job. Only in Donna Reed or Leave it to Beaver did that really happen.

Or maybe we should look at former GOP presidential candidate and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich for guidance on newt_gingrich_hypocrite_in_chiefmarriage. He has a few ex-wives. He married his first wife Jackie in 1962 and served her divorce papers while on her death bed (or so rumors will have you believe). And then there was Marianne whom he divorced to marry his mistress Calista. Calista is smart to stick close to Newt.

Or maybe it is Republican hero, talk show host, and former pain medication addict Rush Limbaugh who is on his fourth marriage. He did divorce his previous wives, so I guess there was only one at a time. Or Senator John Ensign who confessed to cheating on his wife with a staffer and paying hush money to her husband, his chief of staff. Or Representative Mark Sanford, who as Governor of South Carolina, hiked the Appalachian trail (a.k.a. ran away to South America to be with a mistress), or Senator Larry “wide-stance” Craig of Idaho who tried to pick up a guy in a public bathroom. (A guy? Don’t they usually quote the Bible directly on that one, claiming that is what Leviticus is talking about?) Or Senator David Vitter, a good ole boy from Louisiana, who paid for prostitutes and got reelected. And let’s not forget Representative Mark Foley of Florida who like to communicate with male pages. I’m exhausted, but there are so many more fine examples of Republican traditional marriage! Truth is, if these examples represent traditional marriage, I may have to consider divorce. We used to hear a lot about family values. Guess the aforementioned officials missed that memo.

Two years ago this week, my partner and I went to the NY City Clerk’s office to get a marriage license. They had no problem taking our money for a license and then a nice man apIMG_0887 (1)tly named Angel performed the ceremony. While we wanted to have a chuppah, a Jewish wedding, we thought there was no better way to celebrate the repeal of DOMA and Independence day than by making our 17 year relationship legal. On March 23rd of the following year, we stood under the chuppah with several cantors leading the service and over a minyan of clergy signing our ketubah. As far as I know, in the two years that we have been legally married, no heterosexual marriages have been destroyed. At least not because Pat and I tied the knot.

I don’t spend a lot of time blogging about my personal life, although there is no doubt about me among my colleagues. I try to focus this blog on Torah and prayer and how it sneaks into every aspect of our lives. I try toDSC00380 discuss issues of conscience and change. But if there is even the slightest chance that even one child, one at-risk teen, one troubled GLBTQ person feels better about themselves by reading my story, I say, “Really? Isn’t that what it’s all about?”

I have many gay and lesbian friends who have gotten married, set up homes, and had children, and I’m sure there will be more to come. I celebrate them all (and I’m happy to marry them too!) I also celebrate my heterosexual friends who get married. Marriage is a sacred life cycle event in every religion and I hope that everyone who wants to, gets to experience it! And, really, even if it takes an ass or two to teach us the lesson, isn’t that what it’s all about!

 

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I Always Sang: An Interview with Cantor Doris Cohen

This article was originally published in the Womens Cantors’ Network newsletter.  It is reprinted with permission.  For more information check out the WCN website.
An Interview with Doris Cohen
by Gail F. Nalven and Patricia S. Rudden
 2015-04-24 13.50.10-1    This year Doris Siegel Cohen is being honored with induction into the Hunter College Alumni Hall of Fame, a very select group highlighting achievement and service. We spent several delightful hours with Doris at Hunter College, learning more about her life, her achievements and her remarkable career.
     We asked Doris about her background, and she started with some Hunter College memories, noting that her husband was an alumnus of Brooklyn College. “Oh, a mixed marriage. I told him that!” Her sister, nine years older, went to Hunter as well, and so, says Doris, “of course I went to Hunter. I’m happy I went to Hunter. It had the best music department of any of the four city colleges” (City College, Hunter College, Brookaahclogo copylyn College and Queens College, at that time). She pointed out that her Hunter legacy continues with her five-year-old great-grandson Theo, who currently attends the Hunter Campus Schools.
     Her parents came to New York from Russia in 1923. A sister was born during a stop in Bucharest, and a brother was born in Winnipeg, and “I’m the only Yankee in the family,” Doris told us. She was born in Williamsburg and raised in Crown Heights from the age of two. “And that was a great neighborhood,” she said. “It was a middle-class Jewish ghetto, and I was surrounded by high achievers.”
     “I give my parents credit for everything!” Doris repeated this theme throughout our visit. Doris’s parents treated all their children the same and had the same expectations for them. Doris, along with her sister and brother, went to Talmud Torah two hours after school each day and on Sunday mornings for four hours. Her parents felt that their children “had to have a Hebrew education . . . . My father took me to synagogue from the time I sat on his lap.” Along the way, she learned trope and started teaching Bar Mitzvah kids.
     Doris grew up in a musical household. Her brother played the piano and her sister played the violin. They were always singing and playing music.IMG_1741
     At the age of thirteen, things changed for Doris. At the insistence of her teacher and her mother, she took the test for the prestigious High School of Music & Art. It was “one of the best experiences. It was like going to Harvard or Yale.” Everyday she would travel by subway from Brooklyn to the school in uptown Manhattan to study voice and piano. Doris was always “rushing out of school” and graduated at 16.
     Around the same time, her mother arranged for her to sing in the Lowe’s Hollywood Star contest. During that time, most movie theaters showed a double feature with a stage show between movies. When Doris’s mother heard about the contest, she signed her up. Doris won the contest for the entire borough with “Italian Street Song” by Victor Herbert, made  famous by singing film star Jeannette MacDonald , which became her standard song as she toured around the movie theaters. One day she noticed that the program for the stage show between movies listed her as Dora Segale. Having an Italian name was supposed to increase a singer’s prestige through identification with the opera scene.
     “My mother was always volunteering me every place,” Doris told us. And it was around the same time that her mother volunteered Doris to sing at the Menorah Home for the Aged. Although her parents spoke English, her language at home was Yiddish. She had a huge Yiddish repertoire and she loved to sing Yiddish songs, and “taught myself a lot before I even had voice lessons. The more experience you get singing, the better.”
     Doris moved on to Hunter College. “That’s what you did. My sister went to Hunter, I went to Hunter. At that time the city colleges had the best music schools . . . . When I did come in, I was exempt from a lot of music classes . . . .I wanted to get out of school and keep singing, but I also want to have the proper credentials.” In addition to majoring in music, Doris minored in drama and philosophy. “And I did fencing. It was good for movement.” (Pat and Doris then reminisced about their mutual experiences doing fencing at Hunter.) She graduated at age twenty and married Arnold Cohen, the Brooklyn College boy. They were together for fifty-seven years until his death twelve years ago. She had planned to be an opera singer, but “I met my husband too soon.” Later, she earned a masters in music education from Queens College.
      After her triumphs touring the stages at Loew’s theatres, her mother urged her father to imagestake her up to WEVD, a radio station in New York City that was named for progressive figure Eugene V. Debs and had much Yiddish programming, calling itself, “The station that speaks your language!” This led to Doris singing regularly during the Forward Hour, with a thirty-piece orchestra, and eventually to having her own show. The conductor referred her to her first voice teacher, Olga Eisner, with whom she studied on full scholarship from age 16 at Eisner’s Carnegie Hall studio. She also coached with Hans Bruch, the vocal coach at the Metropolitan Opera.
      Sholom Secunda, composer for the Yiddish theatre and of other popular and liturgical music, was “a major part of my life.” She worked with Secunda for many years and catalogued his papers after his death. Along with digitizer Neil Bindelglass, she created the Secunda Archive at the Bobst Library at NYU.
     She met Secunda as a result of singing at a function for the ILGWU, her father’s union. Her father asked that his daughter be added to the program and was told she’d sing if there was time. Well, there was time, and after the event a19768577_118126868957n agent named Ralph Singer approached Doris and invited her to stop by his office at Bettman & Pransky, a major agency at the time. The WEVD conductor she was working with advised her not to go: “He said, they’re a bunch of crooks.” Clearly, he wanted to keep his starlet. So she didn’t go, but then a few months later she did go, and Singer ended up introducing her to Secunda, bringing her into an office and telling her to wait. While she was sitting there, she saw a briefcase with “S.Secunda” engraved on it, “and I started to palpitate. This is like Leonard Bernstein in my house!” He asked her to sing but she wanted to prepare, so she came back the next day and sang for him. “He was a terrible accompanist!” But he asked Doris to sing at a wedding with Richard Tucker. “I told him, sure! The rest is a major history.” This was the beginning of her formal cantorial career.
     After holding several High Holiday and interim positions in a few synagogues, she landed a job at Temple Israel of Canarsie, where she served for 28 years. And it was close to the beginning of this long period that she saw the ad in Jewish Week posted by Cantor Deborah Katchko, looking for other women who felt alone in their cantorate. She was among the first to answer the ad, and the meeting that resulted became the Women Cantors’ Network. Doris has been here from the very beginning, and served as our second president.
     Although she is now officially retired, Doris still works more than many of us, coaching, teaching, and doing various kinds of cantorial work, in addition to some other enterprises she has going. She revels in the life of her city and walks everywhere. “I am a New Yorker,” she says  with pride. “I love my city, and I love to walk because there’s always so much to see.” We both expressed approval of walking as a form of exercise, and Doris replied, “I don’t do it for exercise! I just walk!” And of course she still sings.
     “There wasn’t a time that I stopped singing, ever. I did it ‘My Way’!”
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More about Doris can be found here:
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Parashat Chukkat: Finding Your Leaders

cantors color tech logoThis week, I was honored to give the following d’var Torah at the annual Women Cantors’ Network conference in Austin, Texas. The goal of the WCN is to promote the practice of Judaism through the dissemination, development, and commissioning of Jewish music and rituals for clergy and lay leaders serving in the cantorate.  There is no better way to spend four days in June than with these lovely women!

fnl1Boker tov! As some of you know, I’ve been binge watching some television shows that I seemed to have missed in the last 20 years or so. Can’t imagine what I was doing… Maybe it’s just that I am in Texas, but as I read this week’s Parashat Chukkat, I couldn’t help thinking about one of my recent binges, Friday Night Lights. Friday Night Lights takes place in Dillon, Texas, a fictional town that is all about its football. The radio talks about football and the past heroes of teams are revered. And the key to that football team is their leader, Coach Taylor, and his wife, Mrs. T. Together they change the lives of community and in some cases, lead them out of their Mitzrayim. Coach T works to help students get college scholarships, and as the guidance counselor Mrs. T works toward the same goals. And the town’s biggest fear, no matter which side of Dillon they are on, is the Taylors will leave. How will the Dillon Panthers find their way out of Mitzrayim without the Taylors?

In this parasha, the Israelites could ask the same question. Not about the Panthers’ journey, but of their own leaders. Several fateful events happen in this week’s portion and if I had been an Israelite on that journey, I too might have been rattled. In the portion that we read this morning, the traditional first aliyah is divided into three sections, and we learn about the Red Heifer and rules of purification for those who are around dead bodies. The part that you will hear on Shabbat includes the death of Miriam and Aaron, and Aaron’s transfer of priestly leadership to Eleazar. In between those events, the people kvetch, again, that there is no water. We’ve all taught this story a million times. God tells Moses and Aaron to speak to the rock. Moses is frustrated and he hits the rock. For that transgression he is told that he will never enter the land of Canaan. So here we are, the fate is sealed for our three shomrim. How will the people survive? How will they get where they need to go without their leaders?

Fortunately, just like in Dillon, the Israelite leaders were truly leaders. Just as Aaron made sure to transfer the priestly powers before he died, Moses found his successors and nurtured them. As Sam Walton said, “Outstanding leaders go out of their way to boost the self-esteem of their personnel. If people believe in themselves, it’s amazing what they can accomplish.” And as we’ll see over these next couple of months’ readings, which translates to years of time for the Israelite people, the people have matured and leaders are developed.

Spoiler alert: the Taylors leave Dillon and the team goes on. The coaches that Coach Taylor trained take on the task of leading the team and a new generation of players moves on too.

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Call Me . . .

2014-01-07 09.44.53When our latest cat came into our lives two years ago, there was much discussion about what we would name him. I thought of the name Elul, aka Luli (top), to represent the month he came to us. We are a couple of educators and rabbis and to my partner, the month of Elul, which falls in late August-early September, represented a time of stress and craziness. While I didn’t disagree, I also saw Elul as a time of joy and new beginnings. So, little Luli joined his brother Zali, short for Mazal.

Names are of monumental importance to the Jewish people. Parents often hold back on sharing Hebrew names before a boy’s bris or girl’s baby naming. Families are concerned about how previous generations will be remembered by the perpetuation of their name. In modern America, children are often given a first and middle name in English and in Hebrew. Their last name might be their father’s, their mother’s, both, or a combination of the two. And even then, this carefully planned name may be changed. It may be shortened or manipulated: Jonathan becomes Jon or Jonny. Alexandra become Allie or Lexie. They might have red hair and are simply called Red. They may be a left-handed pitcher and be called lefty. Many people choose their names and they may change as they grow. I wouldn’t call my cousin Susie anything by Susan now.

We also have a Torah tradition of name changes. Avram becomes Abraham, Sarai becomes Sarah, Jacob becomes Israel. People are anointed, becoming kings and prophets. In the book of Ruth, Naomi, in her deepest despairs says, “Call me Mara!” She changes her name from one “pleasant” to “bitter.” Naomi doesn’t suit her anymore.

The Midrash, in Kohelet Rabba, says:

“A person has three names:
one that he is called by his father and mother,
one that people know him by,
and one that he acquires for himself.”

In the last week, there has been a ridiculous amount of coverage the coming out of Caitlyn Jenner. I have been pleasantly surprised to hear and see a great deal of positive media. Although, as I’ve said, I do live in a liberal New York, NPR, MSNBC bubble. I have mostly tried to avoid the negative press, but what I’ve seen has not been nice and I won’t give credit by quoting.

I would like to think of Caitlyn’s transformation in terms of the Midrash.

Bruce, the name given by his parents.

jenner5Olympian, Wheaties-box boy, American hero, and later, American reality show star, the name given by others.

Caitlyn, the name Bruce decided to finally acquire!556cd6644ae56e586e4588d8_caitlyn-jenner-bruce-jenner-july-2015-vf

Most of us are lucky. The name our parents gives us seems right. We can work with it, even if there are some awkward moments where it doesn’t seem right. For some it takes years to figure out what name is right for them. Kol hakavod to those who are willing to take the risk to share that name with their loved ones and the world. Bruchim HaBaim – Welcome!

——————

What’s in a name?

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What’s In Your Spam Folder This Year?

6619741_f496Today, as with many a vacation day, I attempted to tackle the massive piles of paper and magazines that seem to multiply exponentially during the school year.  As I flipped through a New Yorker from sometime this fall, I spotted a cartoon.  It shows God, the old-man-with-the-beard view of God, sitting on a throne on his computer.  The caption read:  “God finds all the prayers of mankind in his spam folder.”  And I thought, that explains a lot.  Because 2014 was not one to be repeated.  Although I do not really keep track, I do not remember a stretch of time with so many individual horrible incidents both on the local, national, and international. (I’ve started to list them, and found myself getting too depressed.  So I deleted the list.) You know what I’m talking about.  And if you don’t, you’ll be happier for it.

And everyone wants to review the year.  My NY Times Sunday Week In Review wrap-up in pictures was horrifying.

My favorite daily column, New York Today on the NY Times website, had the headline, “New York Today: The Year in Sports.”  The article went onto recount how all of the NY teams, Giants, Jets, Yankees, Mets, Knicks have had far from spectacular years.  (For the Knicks, that  seems to be the direction that they are headed.)  And it didn’t even include my NY Liberty whose record is in line with those of the other NY teams.

I could go on.  But, rather than detailing the horrors of 2014, and there were some really horrible things that happened, I would like to share a letter to the Kansas City Star that you may have seen on the internet.  This article has been sitting on my computer desktop for about two months now. As you’ll remember, the Kansas Royals played the San Francisco Giants in the World Series.  Jon Pritzker, a San Francisco businessman wrote to the Kansas City Star to tell them about his wonderful experience visiting the KC baseball stadium.  Decked out in his SF Giants gear, he and his friends could not have found a more inviting crowd.  They were not enemies, just because they were rooting for different teams. Being nicely treated at an opponents baseball game, no matter how big a game it is, seems like a small thing.  But it is seems like a good place to begin.

Each morning, Jews start their morning liturgy with,

Modah Ani L’fanecha, Melech Chai V’Kayam, Shehechezartah Bi Nishmati b’Chemlah, Rabbah Emunatecha.

I am grateful to You, living enduring Ruler, for restoring my soul to me for compassion.  You are faithful beyond measure.

Maybe if we begin to act a bit more like those Royals fans in 2015, the world can recapture its soul.

 

Happy New Year!  May it be a better year.  I know it’s a low bar, but it’s a start!

 

KC Star

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To Electrify or Not?

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When I was growing up, my family and I would light the Hanukah menorah every night in the kitchen.  We had one for the family.  It would sit on the counter and we would light together and then sing Maoz Tzur in an English translation that I never understood.  My brothers or I would run our fingers quickly the flames as my mother would tell us to stop it.  We rarely had presents.  I remember wondering why we didn’t have an electric menorah like so many of my friends.  My mother would say that it wasn’t a REAL menorah.

 

As I became an adult, I learned about the custom of “publicizing the miracle.”  We needed to show off our remembrance of the miracle of a little vial of purified oil lasting 8 days instead of 1.  So, I would light my candles in the  window, sing Maoz Tzur in Hebrew, and then turn my hanukiyah around so the entire world could see the “miracle.”  It didn’t matter that for most of my adult life, I’ve lived on a high floor in the city.

 

One year, a parent gave me an electric chanukiyah for a gift. It was beautiful dark mental with delicate lights.  This gift changed my entire Hanukah life!  While we still light candles every day, the electric hanukiyah would “burn” brightly from our 4th floor window.  And while I am not sure that it really was visible from the street, or the neighbors across the broad NYC avenue,  it changed our evening.  Now, instead of having the candle burns for just a 1/2 hour or maybe more, they would seem to be lit all night.  That hanukiyah with the delicate lights has been changed for one with larger lights.

When I was in Jerusalem, I remember coming home from school and being excited to see all the hanukiyot in the windows. I may not be in Jerusalem, but when I came home last night and saw our electric menorah shining from across the street, it was very exciting.
Happy Hanukah y’all

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I Make Jews

images

At Thanksgiving dinner, someone I hadn’t seen for several years asked me what I was doing for a living and I replied, “I make Jews.” The person was a little startled by response, so I explained that I was a Jewish educator and a rabbi. That I work in a synagogue and supervise teachers of Hebrew and Jewish studies. That I marry people who want to have Jewish households and I bury people who lived their lives as Jews. I train students for the most important of Jewish rituals, their bar or bat mitzvah and I teach them lifelong rituals like lighting Shabbat and Hanukah candles and putting on a tallit.
Or I could have said:

I make Jews be Jews.
I make Jews whose parents want them to be Jews.
I make Jews who have no idea how to be Jews.
I make Jews who wonder.
I make Jews who question.
I make Jews who think.
I make Jews who pray.
I make Jews who sing.
I make Jews who dance.
I make Jews who struggle.
I make Jews who make other Jews.
I make Jews who are resilient.
I make Jews who make Jewish families.
I make Jews who learn how to do Jewish rituals
I make Jews who make Jewish rituals.
I make Jews read Hebrew.
I make Jews who kvetch.
I make Jews who laugh.
I make Jews who will go out into the world and do great things.
I make Jews who will just be Jews.

 

So perhaps it is just easier to say, “I make Jews.”

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Blogging the Torah: Parashat Toldot, Can’t We Just All Get Along?

boxing-gloves

A few years ago, I was at some sort of education workshop, and I was asked to illustrate this week’s parasha, Toldot. I am not a great drawer and I am especially bad at faces. I simply drew a belly (Rebecca’s womb) with two boxing gloves inside. I thought that even in the womb, these two brothers, Jacob and Esau, were battling it out.

Some may call this portion the sibling rivalry parasha. While it might be rivalry on Esau’s part, deception is what comes to mind when thinking about Jacob. First Esau comes to Jacob and says, “I’m hungry! I shall not live if I don’t eat something.” So Jacob trades a bowl of red soup (yes, folks, this is the red lentil soup Shabbat!) for Esau’s birthright. Is this the first documented case of really bad ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder)? And Jacob takes full advantage of it. And then, toward the end of the portion, Jacob is truly deceptive (with help from his mother) in dressing up as his brother to steal their father’s blessing. Poor Esau. Is he destined to be a shlimmazel or the leader of a great nation? Is he all brawn and no brains?

If I were asked to write a headline for this portion (as I often ask students to do), it might read:

Special Needs Student is Duped by Brother!

Mother Plays Favorites!

Birthright and Blessing Stolen: Perpetrator Escapes!

Cross-Dressing Leads to Theft!

Brother Threatens to Kill Brother

These could be right out of a tabloid newspaper or reality tv. Perhaps this is the precursor to reality tv?

And what is it about brothers in the Bible? Jacob and Esau? Cain and Abel? Issac and Ishmael? Joseph versus them all? No one seems to get along. And for the women, there aren’t many stories to examine. But I can’t help wondering what kind of relationship Rachel and Leah had after Leah married Jacob.

Sometimes, you just have to wonder why these are the ancestors that we look to as our leaders, reciting their names every day in the Amidah. (Or at least we recite the ones that we see as our ancestors.) It’s easy for some commentators to lean on the “God had a plan” angle or to portray Esau as evil and not a dupe. I always wonder if the entire point is that our ancestors were human, and flawed, and still led us to be a great nation. So while we are b’tzelem Elohim, created in God’s image, maybe we are also created in our ancestors’ image. And even though we are flawed, we can also do great things.

Next week, many of us will sit down together with our families to share food, stories, and history. Will we be Godlike in our dealings with our siblings, cousins, or parents, or maybe a bit more human, like our ancestors? Will we renew old feuds or just move on? Will we bring our best food to get a blessing? Or perhaps, will we realize that the blessing will be that we are all together and it is not something to be stolen, but shared?

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Blogging the Torah: Parashat Chayei Sarah, Ulai

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On most days, I usually think that it must be a good day if I do not say, “mah la-asot?” (what can you do?) or “yiyeh-tov” (it will be all right) too early in the day.  On some days I say both. On Thursday, I was delighted to hear an alternative from my friend and colleague Daniel Reiser, in his senior sermon presented at HUC-JIR in New York.  “Ulai– what if!”  What if we are open to new possibilities?  What if we see ourselves and others through the lens of the future and not the past?  What if we are willing to take risks instead of following the certain path?

Ulai?  What if?

 

Ulai

Posted by Daniel Reiser

The following was delivered as my senior sermon at HUC-JIR.

In the spring of 1940, as a war was raging in Europe, Harry Reiser, a postal worker from Brooklyn, met a young woman in his neighborhood named Sally Finkelstein. He thought she was sweet; she thought he was funny. They started dating that summer.

On December 7th the following year, “a date that will live in infamy,” Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. America was at war. Troops were needed for the front. Nurses were needed for the wounded. And postal workers, like Harry, were needed to circulate messages between battalions. And so, at the risk of his life, funny Harry Reiser shipped off to the Philippines, leaving sweet Sally Finkelstein behind in Brooklyn.

This is the story of my grandparents. This is the story of “when Harry met Sally.” And like that romantic comedy, my grandparents’ story is a tale of risk and uncertainty. Although he promised to return, and although she promised to wait,  certainly, both of them endured many sleepless nights wondering: “What if…?”

Similarly, “when Isaac met Rebekah” is a story of risk and uncertainty. Abraham sends the chief of his household, an unnamed servant, to find a wife for his son, Isaac. It is a critical task. The future of the covenant is at stake. Isaac’s young life—already torn by an estrangement from his half-brother, the trauma of Mount Moriah, and most recently, the death of his mother—Isaac’s very personhood is at stake. Recognizing the weight of his task, Abraham’s servant asks: “Ulai lo toveh ha-ishah la-lechet acharai / What if the woman isn’t willing to follow me?”

Ulai. “What if…?” Our whole lives are staked on the uncertainty of “What if?” Ulai the woman won’t follow me? Ulai a war breaks out and someone that I love is shipped off to the Philippines? Ulai an unexpected illness, or a hurricane, or a car crash suddenly alters the course of my life forever? Ulai today is the day I loose someone that I love?

Where do we find the courage each day to endure the uncertainty of ulai—the uncertainty of being alive? Our parashah presents three possible responses: the response of Abraham’s servant, of Rebekah, and of Isaac.

***

Abraham’s servant is charged with the task of finding a wife for Isaac. But ulai—what if he can’t find the right woman? How will he know which one is “the one”?

Our Torah text doesn’t give Abraham’s servant a name, but the midrash calls him Eliezer. El-i ezer—“my God is a helper.” And indeed, Eliezer does ask for God’s help. But the kind of help he requests is not the kind of help that God can give. Eliezer doesn’t ask for courage, or strength, or focus, or wisdom. Rather, Eliezer asks for God’s help in the form of a sign: “Let the woman who waters both me and my camels be the one that You, oh God, have designated for Isaac.” Eliezer asks that God intervene with a shooting star or a bolt of lightening. When the highway of life threatens with the intimidating words “What if…?” Eliezer asks for a flashing billboard that says: “Here! Turn here!”

Looking for a sign is not as strange as it sounds. While few of us expect that the faces on TV will turn and address us personally, many of us, at least sometimes, believe the fortune cookie or the horoscope when they tell us that good things await. I remember standing in my driveway as a third grader and wondering whether I would get a certain part in the school play. “If I can just make this basketball shot,” I thought to myself, “then I’ll know that the part is mine.” But this is a child’s prayer, an attempt to know the future, a hope to build an impossible bridge between two unrelated events.

Eliezer is playing a game of “She’ll love him; she’ll love him not,” imagining that by plucking petals off of a flower, he might avoid the risk inherent in looking for love.

It’s no wonder, then, that a midrash imagines that Eliezer arrived at Rebekah’s well on the very same day that he left Canaan. According to the midrash, the road contracted before him, and in just one step, Eliezer traveled a distance that should have taken him several days.

But there are no shortcuts from here to there, no contracting roads, no magic, no fortune cookies. When the universe says ulai, there’s no use in waiting for God to intervene with a miracle. And so we must seek a different model of enduring the challenge of ulai. And this is where we meet Rebekah: at the well.

Our tradition praises Rebekah for being generous, kind, and industrious. When a stranger asks her for a sip of water, she helps him. When his camels are thirsty, she draws water, unprompted, for them all. When he needs a place to rest for the night, she offers her house. The Kli Yakar calls her “the bride with the beautiful eyes,” because she was both a beauty to behold, and because she saw the world through a lens of beauty. Where others might have seen a foreign beggar, Rebekah saw a traveller in need.

But Rebekah’s well is much deeper than this. More astounding even than her generosity is her courage. When she’s asked whether or not she will follow this strange man and his invisible God to a foreign land in order to marry a man she’s never met, Rebekah gives an elegant, bold, two-syllable reply: “eileich / I’ll go.”

By saying “I’ll go,” Rebekah sets herself apart even from Moses, who asks hesitantly: “Mi anochi ki eileich el Paraoh? / Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?” Rebekah more closely resembles Abraham, who was willing to leave behind his home and family in order to lech lecha to a land that God would show him. Avraham, Ha-Ivri / Abraham, the one who crosses from there to here. Abraham, of radical departure. Rebekah will be a natural fit as his daughter-in-law. Rivkah, eileich / Rebekah, who dares to go. Rebekah, who has the courage to set out on a journey even before she knows the destination.

To say eileich in the face of ulai requires a well-spring of courage. It is therefore appropriate that a midrash imagines that—unlike the other women at the well, who had to dip their buckets into it—for Rebekah, the water rose up to meet her, overflowing the mouth of the well. Like the well, Rebekah overflows with bravery—a spring of courage. Her name, Rivkah—Avivah Zornberg points out—is an anagram of kirbah, inside. As with an overflowing well, the courage that is kirbah Rivkah cannot be contained. When life says ulai, the waters of courage rise up to meet her, and out of her mouth pours the wordeileich.

And while Rebekah’s bravery is impressive, it may be too high an expectation to set for ourselves. For most of us, when the universe says ulai, our waters of courage don’t rise, but rather, recede. And so we must seek yet another model of enduring the challenge ofulai—a model somewhere in between Eliezer’s and Rebekah’s, a model that is at once braver than looking for a miraculous contracting road, and yet more realistic than expecting that our well of courage will miraculously overflow. And this is where we meet Isaac: standing in a windy field at dusk.

Throughout his young life, Isaac had learned to guard himself against the messiness ofulai. When his only friend—his half-brother, Ishmael—was banished from the family, leaving Isaac alone and friendless, Isaac would hide safely in his tent. When the neighbors would mock him with the thought that Abraham and Sarah were far too old to be his real parents, Isaac would hide safely in his tent. For months, after his father had stolen him away early one morning to do unspeakable things to him on the top of Mount Moriah, all Isaac could do to hold back his tears—to wall himself in, to keep people out—was hide safely in his tent.

But for all of us, there comes a time when the cold desert wind of ulai rips through the flap of the tent, reminding us that these walls that we build to guard ourselves are made only of burlap. Isaac’s mother—who unguardedly loved her guarded son—dies, unexpectedly. Isaac, who didn’t like to show his feelings—Isaac, who’d been hiding out, safely in his tent—never got to say goodbye.

The tent that had once kept him safe now only reminds him of all that he didn’t let in. And so Isaac runs away, in search of a new safe-haven—somewhere in which he can try to put the pieces of his broken life back together. He goes out looking for the only other home he’s ever known. As a midrash has it, Isaac goes looking for Hagar.

He finds her out in the desert, by a well called Be’er Lachai Roi—the Well of Living and Seeing. The minute Hagar sees his face, she knows all that has happened. She opens her arms to him, and he cries—sobs—letting out all of the tears that he had held in for so long.

Isaac stays with Hagar for many weeks at Be’er Lachai Roi. One afternoon, as they’re drawing from the well, he notices Hagar’s reflection in the water. In the reflection, Isaac sees Hagar not as she looks today, but rather as she once looked, many years ago. Can it be? Isaac looks a little closer.

He peers into the Well of Living of Seeing, and he sees Hagar. Her face is younger, less wrinkled. She is clutching young Ishmael—a morsel of bread in one hand, a skin of water of in the other—as they set off, forever, into the wilderness. He sees himself tied to a bundle of wood on Mount Moriah, his hands and feet bound, a ram caught in the thicket, the glint of the knife. He sees his mother’s empty tent, his father sobbing, the wet, bleak Cave of Machpelah, the Hittites watching as they bury her body. Isaac peers into the Well of Living and Seeing, and for the first time, he sees the life that he had been hiding from—all the mess, all the uncertainty, all the pain of being alive.

Before Hagar even realizes what has happened, Isaac plants a kiss goodbye on her wrinkled cheek. He’s headed home.

As Isaac approaches the field outside his home, and dusk is rolling in, a caravan of camels appears on the horizon. Isaac instinctively begins to turn towards his tent, to protect himself from the approaching ulai. But then he stops. His whole life he’d been in hiding. But hiding hadn’t kept him safe. And so, Isaac tries something he’s never tried before: vayisa einav, vayar—Isaac lifts his eyes, and faces the unknown.

When we allow ourselves to see our own mess and uncertainty—when we peer into the Well of Living and Seeing—that’s when we become fully human. Because the goal isn’t to overcome the uncertainty, but rather, to have compassion for ourselves as we mess our way through. And with compassion for our own beautiful mess, we may find ourselves willing to take the greatest risk of all: “Va-t’hi lo l’ishah, vaye’ehave-ha. And Isaac took Rebekah as his wife. And he loved her.”

***

On August 26th, 1945—just two weeks after World War II ended in Japan—funny Harry Reiser, dressed in his army uniform, married sweet Sally Finkelstein. The world had saidulai—he had gone to war; she had waited in Brooklyn. But unlike Eliezer, they didn’t pray for God to miraculously intervene. And unlike Rebekah, they didn’t imagine that there was no risk at all.

Harry and Sally—like all of us—most closely resembled Isaac. Of course, they were afraid. Of course, they were uncertain. But they did they only thing that any of us can do: they lifted their eyes, and faced the risk of being alive.

If, by some triumph of the imagination, I could have been at their wedding, I would have liked to have lifted a glass and toasted: “L’chaim!” Not “To the good life!” or “To the sweet life!” Not “To the easy life!” or “To the certain life!” Just “To life,” with all its mess and uncertainty. To living. To seeing. We’d lift a glass. We’d lift our eyes. And together, we’d say: L’chaim!

————–

Re- posted with permission of the author: http://thegreatschnoz.blogspot.com/2014/11/ulai-senior-sermon.html

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Thine Alabaster Cities Gleam. And We Weep.

September 11, 2014, New York City

It has become an annual ritual. I turn on the t.v. early in the morning.

I listen to the names representing every ethnic and religious group. Names of those brutally murdered on this date thirteen years ago. Names of those who just went to work, as they did every day. Names of those who went to work to try to save others.

I listen to the bells. The bells that tell me a plane crashed, a tower fell. I stop everything for the moments of silence.

I listen to the stories of loss and I cry. Children, spouses, cousins, friends. I am stunned by how many say that they will see their loved one again, one day.  It’s over 3 hours and the names keep coming.

And I wait for the name of my friend Steven Jacobson. I see his picture on the screen with his age, 53 years old.

I remember it like it was yesterday. It still seems unreal.

I wonder why. I wonder what was accomplished. Death and destruction here, Shanksville, PA, the Pentagon, has led to death and destruction in so many towns, cities, countries. Has anyone won anything? Was there any higher purpose found? Is the world a better place for all of this loss? I fear it may be worse.

We cried. We prayed. We buried the dead that we could. We fought over how to move forward. We sang, “America the Beautiful.” We learned the last stanza which we rarely sang before:

O Beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam,
Undimmed by human tears!
America! America! God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

I look out my kitchen window and I see the space where the towers stood, framing the Jefferson Market Library. I see the new tower and wonder why it needed to be built. I wonder why it could not have been a memorial space. And I wonder what the New Year will bring. The President announces new troops being sent to far away lands. New horrors to face. There are real enemies. Ultimately, new names to add to this never ending list of war and death.

Many times a day we pray:

Oseh shalom bimromav, hu ta-aseh shalom aleinu, ve-al kol Yisrael, ve-al kol yoshvey teivel, v’imru, amen.

May the one who makes peace in the high places make peace for all of Israel and all of us. And let us say: Amen.

I’m not sure it’s enough. I’m not sure what else to do.

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