Blogging the Torah: Parashat Chayei Sarah, Matriarchs Galore

 

gilmore-girls-netflixThanksgiving weekend seemed an appropriate time to think about the matriarchs in our lives. First, there were the matriarchs at many of our Thanksgiving tables. At mine their were two, my mother and my brother’s mother-in-law. Then there is Sarah, the matriarch of us all. The Torah portion that bears her name was read in shul the same weekend.. And lastly, there is Emily Gilmore, perhaps the most formidable of them all, and the one who may just have the most surprising journey.

You would have to be living under a rock without wifi to not know that this past week, long-awaited additional episodes of the Gilmore Girls dropped on Netflix. The Gilmore Girls debuted in October of 2000 on the WB and ran for 7 seasons. I was not the right age demographic for the show when it debuted, but I caught up with it a year or so ago, binging my way through. gilmore-girls-mini-series-s650It tells the story of Lorelei Gilmore and her relationship with her daughter Rory whom she gave birth to at 16. Their relationship was closer to that of friends than mother-daughter. The other Gilmore girl is Lorelei’s mother, played by Kelly Bishop. (Fun Fact: I saw Kelly Bishop in the original cast of A Chorus Line way back in 1976. She won a Tony for that role.) In the tv show she is the wealthy, DAR member, bitchy, take-no-prisoners wife of the late Edward Herrmann as imagesRichard Gilmore. In the 7 years of the tv show, she seemed to go through a different maid every episode, negotiated every move at the country club, was constantly angry at her daughter, and only showed a bit of weakness her granddaughter. She was the stereotyped rich Connecticut matriarch.

In the coinciding Torah portion (not that I think the Gilmore Girls team coordinated this in any way, although it would be fun to think they did), the matriarch Sarah dies. More exactly, the portion opens with the line “Now Sara’s life was one hundred years and twenty and seven years, (thus) the years of Sara’s life” (Everett Fox translation.) This is how the week’s reading starts. It seemed like it was just last week, or a least in the previous portion, that she gave birth to Isaac. Her behavior in casting out Hagar is not exemplary and the biggest adventure that she had was playing Abraham’s sister in the presence of the King Abimelech. If she has a journey, we do not hear about it. We can surmise what it might have been like to raise a child after praying for one for so long. We can wonder about the division of weekly parshaot. Why is the opening line not tagged to ending of the previous portion? The main storyline before the break is the Akeda, the binding of Isaac. I’ve heard it suggested that Sarah followed Abraham and Isaac up that mountain and saw the near death of her son. The son that she waited all her life for. Unfortunately the matriarchs are not really fleshed out in the Torah and even the commentaries are lacking. So we are left to wonder about her journey.

images-1Back to our other matriarch. Fast forward nearly ten years to the new episodes of the Gilmore Girls and we find Emily, shaken by the loss of her husband. While the younger Gilmore girls stay pretty much the same, just older, Emily is the one to go through a true transformation. Spoiler alert: Emily sheds her shell that hardened over the years, leaves her cold mansion behind (but not her money), to find herself near the ocean on Nantucket. Along the way, she picks up a new family, her maid and her husband, cousins, children, etc. Emily literally calls BS on the DAR and creates a new world for herself.

Let’s, just for the fun of it, compare Emily Gilmore to Sarah Imanu (Sarah our mother). Perhaps, ironically, the pathway to comparing these matriarchs is through their maids. Sarah was jealous of her maid’s ability to bear Abraham’s child. Once she was able to bear her own, Sarah had no use for Hagar and threw her out. (Worse yet, she had Abraham do it.) At no point did she seem to evolve. Emily, the biggest curmudgeon of all, always concerned with her place in the community, is able to evolve and even become the caretaker to her maid and their family. Perhaps if Sarah had lived in the 21st century she might have been able to evolve too.

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Blogging the Torah: Parashat Vayeira, Ishmael, Isaac, and the Rabbi’s Bathroom

pipes-bursts

A few weeks ago a pipe burst in the ceiling above our tub. The building quickly repaired it and covered it up for a few weeks. When it came time to make sure that the pipe was holding, we decided that this was a good time for the contractor to fix the hole and paint the entire bathroom. So on Tuesday morning, the contractor sent his painters, Ishmael and Isaac. How could it be that on the week that we read Parashat Vayeira in our Torah reading, the week that we read about the birth of Isaac and the banishment of Ishmael (and his mother Hagar), two painters by the same names walk into our apartment? It must have been bashert: meant to be..

This parsha is packed with drama. If it had been written by J.K Rowling, it would be at least two volumes, maybe three. To recap, in the previous parsha, Lech L’Cha, God told Abram that it was finally time to leave his parents’ house. He and Sarai get a name change and start their adventures. Our story opens when Abraham is sitting at the entrance to his tent at the heat of day (really, the heat of day) when three strangers appear from somewhere. Abraham rushes to greet them and tells Sarah to prepare some food. (We will pass by without a spewing of feminist outrage.) It turns out that they are messengers of God and they tell Sarah that she is going to become a mother. The nearly-90-year-old Sarah laughs, probably saying, “What the _____?” I’ll let you fill in the blank.

In Act 2, the men set off to the cities of Sodom and Gemorrah. God shares some news with Abraham that the towns are about to be destroyed because they are doing some terrible stuff. Abraham tries to bargain with God to save the cities: “If I can find 50 decent people in the city, would you save it?” Abraham pleads. Unfortunately he has to plea-bargain down, not even being able to find a minyan of innocent people. It seems that the place was a real cesspool.

Meanwhile, Abraham’s brother-in-law Lot is sitting at the gate of Sodom when two messengers arrive. He brings them home quickly, to get them away from the violence. (But yet, he was sitting outside at the entry way to town?) Soon, the evil townspeople find out that they are there and come for the strangers. In a truly disgusting act, Lot offers his two virgin daughters to the men. Nice, huh? He was ready to give up his daughters in exchange for the strangers. Thankfully, the messengers turn everyone blind so they can’t even find the doorway. The messengers/angels tell Lot to leave town with his family. (Sounds to me like Lot probably belonged with the townspeople.) In the morning, the angels saw Lot and his wife and the two daughters out of town. God destroyed the town with such fury, Lot and his family were told not to look at it. But his wife turned back and turned into a pillar of salt. (When you take a tour near the Dead Sea, the guides will point to a pillar of salt and claim that it is Lot’s wife.) Lot ends up in a cave with his two daughters. Thinking that he is the only man left on earth, they get him drunk and “lay” with him on successive nights. From their children come the Moabites and the Ammonites. Scene closed on Lot and his lot.

Now, back to Abraham. He and Sarah end up meeting the King Abimelech. Abraham tells Abimelech that Sarah is his sister. Abimelech has a dream where God sets him straight and then next day he sends Abraham off with all sorts of goods and riches. Really? And don’t blink! Abimelech will fall for this again soon enough.

And finally, we are at the main event. Abraham is 100 and Sarah 90 when she gives birth to Isaac. Now that she had a son of her own, Sarah casts out her handmaid Hagar and her son Ishmael. Remember, Ishmael is also Abraham’s son. God tells Abraham to listen to Sarah, just one of the many events in his life that will not lead to good father-son bonding. Abraham gives Hagar a bit of water and bread and sends her and Ishmael out to the desert. God has been following them and has sent out another messenger, this time to save Hagar. (The angels are working overtime in this parsha.) God says Ishmael will become a father of a great nation and a well appears before them.

Believe it or not the portion is not over yet. We have the story of the Akeda, the binding of Isaac. That could be a blog post, a novel, and a Ph.D. thesis of its own.

Last week in school, I showed my 5th graders the BimBam.com video of this portion, which focusses on Ishmael and Isaac. After they saw the video and I answered their questions, I asked them, “So why should we care about the Syrian refugees?” We had previously talked about the refugee crisis, the election, and our President-Elect’s desire to ban Muslims from this country. Although it took some pulling and prodding, the students finally realized that if Ishmael and Isaac are really brothers, and they give birth to the Arab and Jewish peoples, then we are all related. Don’t we have a moral obligation to care for our cousins no matter how far back we go?

We live in strange and scary times. I learned a few things this week. It’s a good thing that when the bathroom is out of commission, the YMCA is only two blocks away with its nice showers. Even fifth graders can understand the enormous possible consequences that this election will bring. And if Ishmael and Isaac can spend four days in this rabbi’s tiny bathroom working together (for a while, our handyman Jose was in there too, working on a pipe), there is hope for this world.

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Blogging the Torah: Parashat Noach, From Shelach to Lecha

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This weekend I was in my happy place, singing with 75 of my closest friends at an annual program called Shabbat Shira held in the woods of Wisconsin. Held at the URJ’s camp Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute, this is the kind of magical space everyone should be able to have. A place to recharge. A place to renew old relationships and form new ones. It’s the kind of place where you see someone once a year and it’s as if you have never been apart. We sing, we laugh, we learn, we stretch. It is as judgment-free a space as you can find in these turbulent days before this election.

On Shabbat afternoon, Julie Silver’s workshop on the creative process gave us ways to express our ideas through painting and writing, through prompts and sharing. It was, with a paint brush in my hand that I thought about the morning’s parsha. Shira Kline, our Storytelling Maven for the morning, talked about Noah the man. Drained, ready to leave the ark, he opened the window and sent out a raven, and then a dove, to assess the status of the flood. The Torah repeats the word “vayishlach – and sent.” Sh’lach! He sent a messenger. Sh’lach! He sent a lifeline. Sh’lach! He needed hope that their would be life beyond the smelling ark.

As I sat and looked at my blank piece of paper, first with a paintbrush, and then with a pen in my hand, I couldn’t help thinking how our story moved so fast. Just last week we were reading about the creation of the earth and now this week, God is already talking about destroying it. How is it that we get from Noah to Abraham in just one parsha? Even though “Shlach” and “Lech L’cha” have different roots, the there is an audible connection. We go through the building, the flood, the family separation, and the Tower of Babel which leads to the confusion and more separation. Were Adam and Eve and their lot, and now Noah and his lot just the trial run for the main story to come? And so I painted. And I wrote perhaps the first poem of my adult life.

The Rainbow and Beyond

Sh’lach L’cha

How do we get from Shlach to Lcha?

 

The dove becomes the rainbow.

The rainbow brings confusion.

The confusion brings the journey.

The journey brings the adventure.

The adventure brings

clash,

sacrifice,

acceptance,

family,

separation,

repeat.

 

The journey continues.

Lech L’cha

It seems to me that Noah and Abraham have much in common. They both reach a precipice and have the faith to keep them going. Noah may have built the ark to protect himself and his family, to take cover. But it was through the opening of the window and the “shlach” that he took the leap into the future. He sent himself just as Abraham will in next week’s parsha. “Hineni,” Abraham will say. Here I am.

Today as a nation, we stand on a precipice. The day before the most important election of my lifetime. Whether we like it or not, we must open the window. We must answer the call to keep our country going on the right path. For me the choice is clear. To vote for the candidate that will keep us on the journey to freedom and equality. To vote for the candidate who already has the faith that we are great. To vote for the person who has always said “Hineni.” Here I am. Time and time again. Now it is our turn to open that window. Can we stand with the party of vision and kindness? Or will we succumb to the calls of hatred and bigotry? Hineni. Heed the call!

Thank you Shira Kline for the inspiration.
Thank you Julie Silver for the means to express it.
You are both my inspiration.
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IN MITZRAYIM: ON THE BANKS OF DENIAL

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On the rare occasion that my spouse and I encounter someone who just doesn’t get it, whatever “it” is, we might say to each other, they’re in Mitzrayim, the biblical word for Egypt. We don’t even need to use the punchline, “on the banks of denial,” being punny for the similar sounding “the Nile.” I couldn’t help thinking about this after seeing the wonderful movie Denial, based on Deborah Lipstadt’s libel trial that ensued after the publication of her 1993 book, Denying the Holocaust. It is based on her experience of being sued by David Irving for calling him a Holocaust denier in this book. His belief is that the Holocaust never happened, so how could he deny it. It was clear to us that he lives deep in Mitzrayim! I am old enough to remember the case and cheered when she was found to be exonerated of libel. As her character says in the movie, some things are just true: The earth is round. Elvis is not alive. The Holocaust happened.

imgresWhen Lipstadt wrote the book, when she was sued in 1996, when they went to trial in 2000, and even when they began working on the movie which surely took a few years, she could not have envisioned how relevant its 2016 release would be to today’s election. She could not have envisioned a candidate, a person, like Donald Trump. David Irving and Donald Trump have much in common. They both seem to work in an alternate universe that could be Mitzrayim. They do not seem to accept universal truths. In the movie, David Irving’s character explains away aspects of Auschwitz as not characteristic of a death mill but a cleansing machine. He takes facts and says that the exact opposite is true. In this campaign, I have witnessed Donald Trump do the exact same thing. He will take an aspect of his campaign and say it’s really part of his opponent’s. He is not the hater, she is. He is not the racist, she is. He denies that he is a misogynist, homophobe, racist, etc. He lives in Mitzrayim. He is incapable, at least publicly, of recognizing universal truths of how one should act and speak.

What better day is there to think about truth than on Erev Yom Kippur, the eve of the Day of Atonement. In this week since Rosh HaShannah, the Jewish New Year, we are asked to confront the universal truths of our relationships. Are there wrongs to others that we need to repair? Are there last minute phone calls to make? Are there truths that we need to face, regardless of how uncomfortable or difficult they are? On Yom Kippur, we face God, we face ourselves, and deal with our universal truths as part of a society.

I always notice that as part of our list, we say, “we are xenophobic.” (I think it is that because the first time I noticed the word, I didn’t know what it meant and I had to look it up.) In the English, it is always at the end of this alphabetical list. This list of our collective sins. This list of our collective truths. We personally may not have been xenophobic, but as part of the collective, as part of the world, we have been. How? By not speaking out about xenophobia when we hear it, when we see it, being complicit by saying nothing. Yes, we are responsible for what this world has become and we are responsible for fixing it. Somehow, most of us understand this when it comes to environment or helping the poor. Busee-something-say-something-imaget when it comes to being responsible for the rise of public figures, this is a difficult leap. As one who is rarely at the front of protest lines, I too am complicit. (I am more likely to be angry on social media from the comfort of my home.) But I understand that I am complicit and in my small world I do what I can to change minds. As Hillel said, “If not now, when?”

As John Donne said, “No man is an island.” Let’s be sure that this year, we are not the ones in Mitzrayim. I’m not sure that we will enjoy the banks of denial.

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WHO REALLY MATTERS?

I have a confession. I was one of those people. When I first heard “Black Lives Matter” I thought, what do you mean? All lives matter. Unlike some of our former elected officials, I kept my mouth shut until I was able to process it and figure out what people were saying. People I respected supported the movement, so I thought it must be meaningful. I heard leaders speak on TV and they seemed bright and well-spoken.

And of course, I always thought black lives do matter. My heart would ache every time a news story would pop up about the death of a young, and not so young, black man or woman by the hand of a police officer. With each video that would pop up, I would see a policeman shooting a man in the back, I would see a woman being pulled out of a car by her hair and tossed around –- this I would see more than once. I would hear stories about men being handcuffed in the back of vans, see beautiful faces shot by someone “standing their ground,” and see videos of cops shooting to kill. I would rail on social media about the need for restraint and better training of police.

I am guided by the biblical words, Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof – Justice, justice you will pursue (Deut. 16:20). So it didn’t really matter whether I fully understood words because I believed in the sentiment. I was struggling to think of an analogy. Then I remembered an incident when I felt marginalized. When I felt that my struggles and the struggles of those before me were smoothed over for ease of discussion.

A few years ago I was at services during Hebrew school. The rabbi leading services asked the students to share something about their Pesach seder. One student talked about having an orange on his seder plate. When the rabbi asked what the purpose of the orange was the student said that it was to recognize women. At that point, I thought, NOOOO!!!! It’s not to recognize women. It’s to recognize gay and lesbian Jews who have felt marginalized in our communities. (See below for a more detailed explanation.) I had an email exchange with the rabbi later, explaining the meaning. When he said something like, I’m not sure what I would have said, meaning, how would I have explained that it was for GLBTQ people, as if that was a bad word. I responded, that is our challenge, isn’t it?

I realized that when he agreed that it was for women, he erased the challenges that GLBTQ folks like me have had throughout the generations. And when we say All Lives Matter as a response to Black Lives Matter, we are doing the same to black people. So Black Lives Matter doesn’t mean Blue Lives don’t matter.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

I conceived this article before The Movement for Black Lives published their platform. There is much to digest there and to be sure, there is much to grieve. However, I am sorely disappointed that the platform sought to involve the “Palestinian people.” This section which is include below suggested that Israel is complicit in genocide and “Israel is an apartheid state.” I vehemently disagree with these points and find myself conflicted here. I still don’t want to see young black men and women dead. This has not changed. But I am staunch in my support for Israel. This is unwavering. I find anti-Israel sentiment and BDS (boycott, divest, sanctions) movement is becoming a rallying call for growing antisemitism.

Yes, Black Lives Matter. But so to do Jewish Lives Matter.

So, who really matters? We all do.

—————

Orange on a Seder Plate

Orange: Many families and congregations have begun adding an orange to the Seder plate as a way of acknowledging the role of people who feel marginalized within the Jewish community. Professor Susannah Heschel explains that in the 1980’s, feminists at Oberlin College placed a crust of bread on the Seder plate, saying, “There’s as much room for a lesbian in Judaism as there is for a crust of bread on the seder plate.” Heschel adapted this practice, placing an orange on her family’s seder plate and asking each attendee to take a segment of the orange, make the blessing over fruit, and eat it as a gesture of solidarity with LGBTQ Jews and others who are marginalized within the Jewish community. They spit out the orange seeds, which were said to represent homophobia.

The Movement for Black Lives

The US justifies and advances the global war on terror via its alliance with Israel and is complicit in the genocide taking place against the Palestinian people. The US requires Israel to use 75 percent of all the military aid it receives to buy US-made arms. Consequently, every year billions of dollars are funneled from US taxpayers to hundreds of arms corporations, who then wage lobbying campaigns pushing for even more foreign military aid. The results of this policy are twofold: it not only diverts much needed funding from domestic education and social programs, but it makes US citizens complicit in the abuses committed by the Israeli government. Israel is an apartheid state with over 50 laws on the books that sanction discrimination against the Palestinian people. Palestinian homes and land are routinely bulldozed to make way for illegal Israeli settlements. Israeli soldiers also regularly arrest and detain Palestinians as young as 4 years old without due process. Everyday, Palestinians are forced to walk through military checkpoints along the US-funded apartheid wall.

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You Are My People. Really!

Anger

I’m angry. I’ve been angry for weeks now and just when I think I am getting over my anger, something else makes me even more angry. I realized that it has darkened my joy and seeped into surprising places. It has made me quiet, which is unusual. It has made me tired.

I’m not sure what to do with my anger. Lawmakers and clergy folks say pray but prayer is not enough. I was at the Garden in NYC for a basketball game last week and they had a moment of silence for the recent senseless act of mass violence. The moment of silence seemed odd to me. I thought we should be screaming, at the top of our lungs. I want moments of rage instead of silence.

For wherever you go I will go

Your God shall be My God

Your people shall be my people

–Ruth

Jews around the world heard these words recently as they were read on the festival of Shavuot. They refer to Ruth’s joining her mother-in-law Naomi on her journey home after the deaths of their spouses and Naomi’s sons. The most horrible has happened and Naomi wants to cling to her people. Ruth, instead of clinging to hers, reaches out to Naomi in friendship and love, and instead of going home to her parent’s house, she joins Naomi and her kin. It is through these words that Ruth joins Naomi and the Jewish people.

Beyond our teaching of the book of Ruth on Shavuot with its all-night learning and cheesecake, I have wondered whether this could be a universal ideal. A shofar call, on the day that we celebrate the giving of Torah, to remember to watch out for others, reach out to others, and be one people. Your people will be my people. But really? I think we need to do some work on this.

Your People Shall Be My People

It was a beautiful night to enjoy a meal, a drink in an outdoor cafe. But then terrorists came, spewing bullets, killing four people who were just out enjoying the evening. What? You didn’t hear the uproar about this? There were no “je suis” signs like in Paris and Brussels? Perhaps that is because the murders took place in Tel Aviv, in Israel and the dead were four Jews. But really, they were no different from anyone else. Ilana Nave, a mother of four from Tel Aviv, Ido Ben Ari from Ramat Gan, Michael Feige, 58, a professor of sociology and anthropology at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and Mila Mishayev, 32, from Ashkelon. Your people ARE my people. I am a Jew.

Your People Shall Be My People

Two graduate students were riding their bikes home from the library one night. There passed a couple who looked like they were fooling around behind a dumpster. Realizing that the woman was not moving, that she was unconscious, the guys hopped off their bikes and came to her aid. Although the man said he was so drunk, he didn’t know what he was doing, he had the presence of mind to run. One of the guys tackled him, while the other called the police. The rapist was brought to trial and found guilty by a jury. The judge believed the rapist and feared that a prolonged sentence would harm him. He received a sentence of three months. What about the victim? How long will her sentence be? Your people ARE my people. I am a woman.

Your People Shall Be My People

It was Latino night in a club in Florida. Near the land of Disney, the ultimate fantasy of fun and innocence, it was a great night to be out dancing with friends. There were music, drinks, and there was lots of sweat. But that innocence was broken heartbetrayed when a hateful gunman, with a weapon designed to kill people, lots of them, in war, arrived to destroy any shreds of innocence. He shot and shot and shot, rounds and rounds and rounds, until 49 people were dead in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. Each of these men and women, as young as 18 years old, had a family, had friends, had a story that is unfinished. They were brutally murdered. They didn’t pass. They didn’t just die in some natural process. There was nothing natural about it. They were murdered.

We could say that this hateful act was done by a lone gunman who was a religious terrorist. Or a lone gunman who was in conflict over his sexual identity. Or whatever reason suits your political bent. I think they were murdered by our lawmakers who refused to create laws to prevent this violence. I think they were murdered by the NRA who fights to allow weapons of mass destruction such as assault weapons on the streets. They are the ones with blood on their hands. Your people ARE my people. I am gay.

Your People Shall Be My People

A few days ago, a man in The Bronx was killed by police. They said that he had a stopgun. It seems reasonable to me that the police would defend themselves. Three policemen shot at this man who was outside at the time. They shot 31 times. Was that reasonable? I wonder, what was the bullet that knocked the gun out of his hand? What would a bullet to the shoulder have done? What was the bullet that killed him? Was it #5? #10? Did they really need 31 shots? I heard that many of the shots missed the man. Perhaps we are lucky that they only killed one man and not others. Your people ARE my people. I am a New Yorker.

So, what do I do with my anger.

  • Vote! In every election. Not just for president by for Congress, State, and City officials. If you had a dogcatcher up for election in NYC, I would vote. (We used to vote in every school board election when we had a school board.)
  • Sign every petition and contact every lawmaker to express my anger and their inability to do anything about gun violence. (My NY congress people are pretty good voters in this regard and we have strong gun laws in NYC.)
  • Try to have reasonable discussions with the opposition on social media. This isn’t so easy, because people who seem thoughtful in many regards can get a bit nutsy when it comes to guns.
  • I will use the correct language. Guns kill. Killing is murder. It is not a tragedy that just happens as an act of nature or accident. It is an outrageous act of violence. Let’s start to use the right language. Let’s not sugarcoat it. Let’s let people be reminded of the horrors until the horrors stop.
  • And I’m willing to give prayer a chance, although I know that it will provide more comfort to me than to those afflicted.

Last week, I spent several days singing with my pals at the Women Cantors’ Network conference. At times, it seemed incongruous to me that we could sing and dance with all of this pain in the world. There seems to be so much of it lately. But I was struck with a poem in Mishkan T’filah, the Reform Movement’s prayerbook. It is tied to the Hashkiveinu prayer which appears in the evening service. We ask God to ufros aleinu sukkat shlomecha — spread over us a shelter of peace. I’ve seen this a million times before and sung it almost as many, but it never meant this much to me. Perhaps if we all read it and live it, the words can come true. It seems to be all I have to offer right now.

Let there be love and understanding among us,

Let peace and friendship be our shelter from life’s storms.

 –Mishkan T’filah: A Reform Siddur (CCAR)

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Dayenu: When Is It Enough

imagesSitting at a friend’s seder table, full and content and a bit bleary-eyed, I was awakened by this lovely sermon that was to be given the next morning. Welcome, guest blogger Rabbi Rosalie M. Osian. Thanks for sharing your words.

A Yahrzeit Sermon on Pesach – 2016

Rabbi Rosalie M. Osian

New York, New York

My dear friends,

This week I observed the Yahrzeit of my dear father Elya Markowitz, who died in 1989. This week my husband observed the death anniversary of his mother, Mary Giamundo, who died in 2011. My father died before I met John and therefore he and Mary never met. They were very similar people in nature. Hard workers. Humble. Practical. Wise. They were poor and at times impoverished. They suffered from illness. Rarely complained. They might have thought they came from worlds too far apart to be acquainted. Mary’s father was one of the founders of St. Vladimir’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Smithmill, PA. My father was the Gabbai and Sheliach Tzibur (Service Leader) in most of the synagogues near where he lived. Spiritually, they were closer than they would have imagined.

They were both deeply faithful to God. They had their share of bargaining. Mary would say, “I was sick. I promised God that if He gets me through it, I will have another baby.” Time passed. John was born. Fifteen years after her last childbirth. Elya’s promise before and after the Shoah that there was no bargaining who he was as a Jew. His commitment to Torah was unshakeable. For both of them, in their darkest times and in their happiest times, prayer was on on their lips. Gratitude. I am reminded of the song we sing at our seder table, “Dayenu” which means; “It would have been enough.”

This up-beat Passover song is over a thousand years old. It appeared first in the medieval period, in the 9th century, attributed to Rav Amram. (Amram Bar Sheshna, head of the Jewish Talmud Academy of Sura in Babylon, who arranged the complete liturgy of the synagogue.)

The song is an expression of gratitude to God. It is arranged in 15 stanzas representing 15 gifts God bestowed upon Israel, divided into 3 sections:

Leaving slavery (leaving Egypt, justice, first born, wealth)

The miracles (the sea, dry land, drowning, needs manna)

Being present with God (Shabbat, Mt. Sinai, Torah, Israel, Temple)

American singer-songwriter Ben Kweller (Benjamin Lev Kweller, b. 1981) included the word Dayenu in one of his songs. Ben Kweller explains Dayenu to the masses:

when something good happens to you and then another good thing happens to you. What you had in the first place would have been enough, if nothing else happens to you. It’s all about counting your blessings and staying grounded. (1)

Some mornings after my alarm rings and I wake up, I take a few minutes to catch a snooze. I try to assemble the day’s schedule. Imagine it happening. Maybe I dwell on the remnants of some dream. When I get up, a Dayenu is conveyed through the prayer, Modeh Ani. ‘I am grateful dear God for restoring my soul to me in compassion, Rabbah emunatech, You are faithful beyond measure’. (Another trans. ‘Your faithful Eternal trust…’)

Modeh Ani is the first gratitude prayer uttered when we wake in the morning. It is a major Dayenu. A testament of the duality of the relationship we seek to establish/understand with the Divine. It is a lifelong quest. We say, You, God, are faithful beyond measure…you trust in us. You, God need us too.

At our seder tables we raise four cups of wine and bless them. Each cup symbolizes the Israelite physical and spiritual journey from Egypt and each would have been enough.

Freedom from burdens

Deliverance from slavery

Redemption

Joining of Jews to God

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch makes an important point regarding the difference between liberation and redemption. He says that liberation is only the beginning of freedom. Freedom is a state of physicality. Redemption is the alliance with God, to serve God. (2) It’s a spiritual state. It’s an invitation to what, in Heschel’s words, is “the ‘intimacy’, the quasi-identity between God and man, the meeting between the Divine and human will.”

In Heschel’s poem, ‘Ikh un Du’ he writes:

“Am I not –You?

Are you not –I?

I live in Me and in You.

Through your lips goes a word from Me to Me.

From Your eyes drips a tear – it’s source is Me.

When a need pains You, alarm me!

When you miss a human being –

Tear open my door!

You live in Yourself. You live in me.”

­

When we say the word “Dayenu”, “It would have been enough,” it conveys a sense of acceptance and trust in the “Ikh un Du” relationship.

But what if, for whatever reason, the good things that happen to a person are not enough? What if the bitter outweighs the sweet in such proportions that gratitude cannot be uttered from one’s lips? Then, dear friends, what is the meaning of Dayenu when it is not enough?

ONE answer is in the Passover Seder and the Haggadah. Passover doesn’t lie. Passover tells the truth about suffering, affliction and struggle. Passover asks questions. Bitter herbs are eaten. We dip in saltwater. We humble ourselves with unleavened bread. Slavery is named. Plagues are named. We process.

I want to put forth an affirmation of the duality of Dayenu. YES, it is Todah, gratitude, for what fulfills. Indeed, there are aspects of “it would have been enough.” Yet, if we are NOT in that particular state of grace, we are permitted to honor the feeling that says: “Today, it does not feel like it’s enough. Today, there is struggle. Today I need a little more, dear God. I hope, and long for the day, I will feel Dayenu.”

Like my father Elya, and my mother in law, Mary, and others, may we be inspired to find our way. Through the blessings over wine, food, and Hallel, we affirm the hope found in the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel:

“may the Divine AND the human will meet . . . and may that will be one.”

In memory of our loved ones not here this day . . .

L’Shanah Ha-ba-ah B’Shlemut! In the year to come . . . more whole!

A zissen Pesach.

Rabbi Rosalie

1. Wikipedia 

2. Hirsch, The Jewish Year

 

RABBI ROSALIE M. OSIAN

New York, New York

unnamedRabbi Rosalie M. Osian is a Hospice Chaplain for over a decade serving at Caring Hospice Services of New York where she provides clinical pastoral care to multi-faith clients, families, and staff.  She considers her clients  ‘living human documents’ and builds professional relationships based on a construct she created called  the ‘Five Touchstones of Spiritual Strengths’ derived from Torah teachings.

‘Presence’ – The person receives the gift of care, and can join together to walk the path of the Divine (Genesis 18:1-6).

‘Being‘ – An openness and permission to experience one’s self.   “I am that I am, I am Who I am, I Will Be what I will be” (Exodus3:14).

‘Listening’ – Listening with profound stillness so that the still small voice within can be heard (High Holiday Liturgy).

‘Hope’ -The Divine intention as promised in the rainbow, of hope and non-abandonment (Genesis 9:12-17).

‘Joy’ –  A person can ‘draw water with joy’ (Isaiah 12:3), and access spiritual resources to create an inner calm.

Rabbi Osian is also the founder of Derech Chayim-Cycle of Life Pastoral Services which provides individual spiritual care in private and community settings.  She is married, resides in Manhattan, and enjoys travel, writing and music.

 

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Blogging the Torah: Parashat Shemot, What Happened?

Vote

It seems almost appropriate that this week’s Torah portion is read on the cusp of a new year as it represents a transitional time for the Israelite people. We have just ended the book of Bereshit (Genesis). The Israelites have found hope in Mitzrayim against the famine of Canaan. Now in the first portion in the book of Shemot (Exodus), the hope is gone. First we hear about the descendants of Joseph, tying this section with the previous book. It only takes a few sentences, though, to change everything. In Shemot 1:5 we see the line that changes the trajectory of the Jewish people: “Vayikam Melech Chadash…A new king arose who knew not Joseph.”

I’ve always wondered, what happened in the generations since Joseph to take the Israelites from protected status to slaves? Did Joseph’s descendants do something to disgrace their community? Or, was there a post-Joseph hit to the economy that make the leadership and people seek out a scapegoat? Was it similar to what happened in Germany during the early 20th century? Could it happen in 21st century United States if we listen to some of our candidates?

The Rabbis tell us that the Torah came to us as black fire on white fire. The black fire is the text and the white fire is the space around the text. Perhaps we should listen to the silences as much as the text. We learn from the events in Mitzrayim that rights can disappear as quickly as they are given. People can change, as well as nations. Perhaps it is only with vigilance and attention to detail that we can protect our rights. Speak up. Fight back, even if it is only on Twitter and Facebook. And most importantly, VOTE! 2016 is going to be a tough year. We are going to be slammed with candidates’ emails, snail mail, phone calls, polls, and rhetoric of all kinds. We must not turn away. We need to pay attention and VOTE! Not just in presidential primaries and elections but in Congressional elections, state elections, and local elections. VOTE! It’s not just how we change our world. It’s how we protect our world.

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“The Other” Is You

divinciIn preparation for the new season of Downton Abbey, PBS ran a behind-the-scenes show the other night. I was struck by their insistence on propriety. Clothing, posture, and manners must adhere to the period. (Although, we have caught a few 21st century catch phrases in this early 20th century piece.) As I heard Hugh Bonneville, the actor who plays Lord Grantham, speak about manners, I thought, we could use some more today.

In this world of “No problem” as a response to “Thank you” and unanswered emails meaning non-interest (or maybe acknowledgement, I’m not sure), manners are a nice thing. When kids are little, parents often say, “What do you say?” And the response will either be “Thank you” or “Sorry!” I pride myself on saying “Thank you” often, and I appreciate my colleagues who actually acknowledge emails. (They’re usually over 45 years old.) As a women’s basketball fan, I love how both teams, and the coaches from both teams, go through a “high-five” line at the end of every game. There are even some hugs! I noticed that football has some form of this ritual. This Sunday, my NY Giants had a heartbreaking loss with a tie-breaking, last second field goal. (This is the second time this season that this happened.) Did Eli Manning steam into the locker room? No, he went to shake hands with the opposing quarterback and the coach did the same with his counterpart while players on both teams mingled with one another on the field.

Yet, our public discourse these days has devolved into crude innuendo and even dangerous racial and ethnic language. Emily Post, the mother of modern etiquette, would most certainly be red-faced following the campaigns and news. There are presidential candidates who use immature language to spew hatred against ethic groups that are different from themselves. Acting like big men (yes, they are men) they hide their fear of the “other” in lies about hidden dangers. They suggest that refugees are the enemy and not really people in need. They suggest that we should kill terrorists’ families. The ugliness is beyond the pale. (I’d rather not give these guys more publicity by mentioning names. After all, we are taught to blot out Amalek.) And Americans have taken their sentiments to heart by burning mosques and by attacking and killing Muslims in this country. America, the land of freedom. Often, these acts are committed by people who consider themselves God-fearing. Yet, they seem to have absolutely no clue about God. They seem to have missed the many lessons that the Torah has to teach them.

As we complete the book of Bereshit this week with Parashat Vayechi, I can’t help thinking about how much we as a people learned since the creation. If we look at the Torah as the history of our people, then the book of Bereshit can be seen as our growing up as a family and the remaining four books can be seen as our growing up as a nation. In Bereshit we see a lot of growing and learning. Even God learns. Right after creation, in the second portion of Noach, God destroys all that lives on the earth. After that, God says that will never happen again. And when God is angry again in Parashat Vayera, God doesn’t destroy everyone, just the people of Sodom and Gemorrah. And, in the story of Jonah, God threatens to destroy a city and in the end, lets the people repent and change there way. Perhaps this was God creating teshuvah. I often wondered whether there is an entire planet that God destroys before Bereshit even begins. If God can learn to temper God’s anger, to widen God’s view, to be more accepting, perhaps we should too.

The main family story of Bereshit really starts with Abraham. We know that he had two sons, Ishmael from Hagar and Isaac from Sarah. Ishmael is actually the first born, but once Sarah, Abraham’s wife, gives birth to Isaac, Hagar and Ishmael are cast out (Parashat Vayera). You would think that Ishmael would hold a grudge against his brother Isaac and his father Abraham. No. We learn at the end of Abraham’s life, the sons come together to bury their father (Parashat Chayei Sarah). If Isaac and Ishmael can learn to temper their anger, widen their view, and be more accepting of one another, perhaps we should too.

We see a similar story with Isaac’s sons Jacob and Esau. Jacob stole the first-born Esau’s birthright and blessing (Parashat Toldot). But in the end, they reunite. Even though it is twenty years later, Jacob is worried that the bigger Esau would want to exact vengeance for Jacob’s earlier acts. But no. Upon seeing Jacob, Esau weeps and kisses him. Jacob has nothing to fear from Esau and Esau shares his wealth with Jacob. Esau says that he has more than enough in the world and gives to his brother (Parashat Vayislach). If Esau can learn to temper his anger, widen his view, and open his heart to his brother, perhaps we should too.

And now we come to the next generation in this week’s portion, Parashat Vayechi. It is the end of Joseph’s story. To recap from the past few Torah portions, Joseph was his father Jacob’s favorite son, eldest of his beloved Rachel, and next to youngest son. His father gives him a fancy cloak, the “coat of many colors” that we all drew pictures of as kids in Hebrew school. Because of his father’s doting, he grows up to be an obnoxious, spoiled young man. He interprets one of his own dreams to mean that he will one day rule over his older brothers. His brothers are not amused. (He couldn’t have kept this dream to himself?) His father sends him to check on his brothers who are out in the field. (I’ve wondered whether this is a set-up or Jacob is simply blinded by love for his son.) They take the opportunity to do evil. First they want to kill him, then they throw him in a pit, and finally they sell him as a slave. Despite the obstacles, and many adventures to come, it turns out that Jacob’s gift for dream interpretation is his get-out-of-jail-free card. Jacob rises to become the Pharaoh’s highest adviser. He has changed so that when Joseph’s brother’s come looking for food during a time of famine, they don’t recognize him. At first, he tries to hide himself and plays some tricks on his brother, but as we saw in last week’s portion, he can’t hide. Joseph tells them not to worry about selling him to the slave traders. It all turned out for the best. And even this week, when Jacob dies and the brothers fear that Joseph might finally exact his revenge, Joseph says not to fear, because he will take care of them and their families. If Joseph can learn to temper his anger, widen his view, and open his heart to his brothers, perhaps we should too.

This New Year I pray that our xenophobic, racially charged anger and ugly speech will stop. I pray that our nation’s leaders and leader wannabes on all levels will learn how to be civil with one another and with America and the world. I pray that they will change their rhetoric from nastiness to welcoming. And I pray that we elect leaders that will follow the values of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And when they don’t, that they can learn from their mistakes, temper their anger, widen their views, and open their hearts to those in need. And I pray that we can too.

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Blogging the Torah: Parashat Miketz, On Terror and Grain

amber-wavesThis has been a difficult Chanukah for this world.  As we light our candles in the darkest time of the year, we struggle to find a way to overcome the darkness of this world with the light of goodness.  In this week’s Torah portion, Miketz, we learn of Joseph the dreamer, Joseph the environmentalist, Joseph the predictor of a great famine

I am thrilled to share this d’var Torah from Walter R. Isaac, rabbinical student at the Jewish Spiritual Leaders Institute.  As Walter says, we are facing a famine right now.  We just don’t know it.

On Terror and Grain

by Walter R. Isaac

11902303_1469640793340117_4730633130629884115_nIn our Parashah this week, Joseph lives and interprets the American dream.  His story is a rags to riches classic.  But his story is not only about prosperity and success.  Like the dream he interprets for Pharaoh, it may have told of prosperity, but at its root it was a warning.  And warnings foretell the potential for disaster.  Joseph also interprets Pharaoh’s dream as a warning. He counsels Pharaoh to store up grain so that during a coming famine, there would be enough food for the people of Egypt.

Similarly, the American dream is a dream about abundance and plenty.  And times of plenty are good because during those times one does not lack necessities such as food, clothing or shelter.  But times of plenty also carry a hidden danger. The danger is that in the midst of plenty we might become lazy and forget that such times do not last forever and are always followed by times of relative lack.

If we live by grain like the Egyptians did, then we must store up that grain during times of plenty so that we can survive the famine during the times of scarcity.  But this is the take away…What goes for the needs of the body, also goes for the needs of the mind. What is true in our story for Egypt’s grain is also true for the human heart.

Grain is compassion.  Grain symbolizes a crucial sense of justice and love and concern for those who are different.  And just as Joseph saw how Egypt’s future depended on how, during times of plenty, they prepared for the trials of famine and scarcity… it is also the case that during times of comfort and safety we must check the grain stored in our hearts and see if we’re prepared to withstand the trials of danger and insecurity.

Terrorism is a kind of famine.  It is a trial characterized by the scarcity of safety and the presence of danger.  No it is not the absence of food or water or shelter, but it IS the absence of things such as peace and stability.

Fortunately, the season of terror does not last forever.  And because of this, we need to store up the proper grain in order to survive what terrors will afflict us.  What troubles me is that too many of us as Israelites have not stored up the proper amount of grain in our hearts to survive this famine.  And this time, it is not a famine of food, but rather a famine of compassion, a famine of security, and a famine of care for those human beings we both know and don’t know.

I fear that in blaming others for recent terrorism many people miss the fact that terrorism is nothing new for America.  There is a long American tradition of spreading terror among people of color.  Our inability to stamp out the remnants of this tradition has enabled far too many to feel comfortable expressing ideas such as rounding other people up, expelling undesirables from society, surveiling people of a different ethnicity, and creating barriers on the basis of some arbitrary religious or racial or linguistic tests.

So earlier this week, when I heard people discussing these ideas, and I heard on the news serious conversations among politicians about what kind of surveillance or what kind of mass expulsion would or would not be permitted by law, I thought to myself that we are on the verge of a society-wide famine.  And I worried that too many of us as a people have not stored up enough grain in our hearts to survive it.

As you travel through the world this week, as you go to your job and see different kinds of people in the market, on the street, at the bus stop or in the post office—check up on your food stores.  Examine your heart’s balance sheet.  What does it tell you?  Have you stored up grain during this time of plenty?  Can you withstand a famine of compassion?  Can you survive a scarcity of love for the stranger?  If not, then you should remember the warning of Joseph’s dream.  And if you can’t remember his dream, then remember the American dream, or what some people have called the American nightmare.  Because both of them warn us of the suffering that will come without sufficiently storing up that precious grain in our human hearts.

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