Friday, November 29, 2019

When the direct line to God is blocked

In this week’s parsha, Toldot (Genesis 25:19–28:9), just after stating that Rebecca’s children struggled in her womb we read, “Vatelech lidrosh et Hashem/ She went to inquire of God.” (Genesis 25:22) 

What does it mean “vatelech/she went” to inquire of God? Rashi (11th century, France) posited that if we interpret the verse to say that Rebecca prayed to God, then the word vatelech/she went is inappropriate because God is everywhere and therefore one needn’t go anywhere to pray.

So what does vatelech mean? It must mean that Rebecca indeed went somewhere to inquire of God. Where would she go to seek out God? Rashi decided that she must have gone to speak to a person of God, a wise person.

Nachmanides (13th century, Spain) took the more conventional approach and understood the word vatelech to mean that Rebecca appealed directly to God in prayer as she was feeling such anguish about her pregnancy.

I normally have a constant and fluid dialogue with God. I speak directly to God as Nachmanides wrote that Rebecca did. However, in May, my husband, daughter and I were in a very serious accident while we were on our way to say our final good-byes to my mother in New England.
The period of time when I would normally have been comforted by the mourning rituals of our tradition was preempted by hospital stays and the road to recovery.  

Since that fateful night, I find that my open access to God has been obstructed. I am operating more along the lines of Rashi’s interpretation of vatelech -  I seek out a person of God to speak to instead of direct prayer as I used to.  

Who might that person of God be? It could be my mentor or another wise clergy person of most any religion. It might be my husband, children, siblings. I find that my family contains great wisdom and guidance in this situation even if we all have different conceptions of God and prayer. I often find myself turning to the seniors who I serve as a chaplain. It is a privilege that I am able to learn from their lives and their wisdom.

Recently I conducted prayer-‘writing workshops with of the Charles E Smith Senior Living Communities. They were some of the most exciting prayer writing sessions I’ve ever experienced. The format was that of Six Word Prayers that I learned from the poet and liturgist Alden Solovy, though many of our prayers were not exactly six words.

Here are a few examples:
Prayers from residents of the Assisted Living included:  I’m happy that I can feel [again]; Make the most of what is; Let me accept the differences in life; and Allow me to see all clearly. 

Prayers from residents of the Memory Care House included:  Thank you Adonai I am Grateful. I am grateful for getting up every morning, for good health, for friendship and joy. I am grateful for my children who teach us what love feels like. I am grateful that we can argue [with our family], make up and still love each other.

I can only imagine that Rebecca’s prayer practice vacillated quite a bit over the course of her rather unusual pregnancy as it might with any major life event. Yes, God may be all around us but sometimes we have to seek God out in order to find God. Then we can find God inside us or in those around us. As it says in Psalm 145, “God is near to all who call God, to all who call God with sincerity/earnestness.”

Some food for thought: 
Which approach to God and pray speaks to you – Rashi’s or Nachmanides?
Do you find your approach to God and prayer changing with time and experience?

This Dvar Torah is dedicated to the memory of my mother, Harriett Venetsky Goldstein, may her memory be for a blessing.

*This dvar appears in the Washington Jewish Week, November 28, 2019

Friday, November 8, 2019

Lech Lecha: What Drugs Were Abram on Anyway?

This week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha (Genesis 12:1-17:27), arguably one of the most interesting in the Torah.

Lech Lecha begins with the famous line, “The Lord said to Abram, Lech Lecha, Go forth from your native land and from your father's house to the land that I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1) Abram (not yet Abraham until later in this portion) not only listens to this voice in his head but also convinces his wife, nephew, all his family and everyone who depends upon him to go with him to this unknown place.

Many years ago Lech Lecha was my son’s Bar Mitzvah portion. In preparation for his meeting the with rabbi, he wrote an interesting and thorough Dvar Torah (sermon) but felt that that wasn’t enough. You see, when his older sister had had her rabbi meeting she had decided to inject some humour into the situation. So she printed out her entire Dvar Torah in 4 point print. When she handed it to our rabbi, he was bemused. What was he supposed to do with this?

Now, it was my son’s turn. He decided to also take the humorous route and wrote a fake Dvar to hand in. The title was, “What drugs was Abram taking anyway?” The premise was that Sarai, his wife, had a sleeping problem and had been prescribed sleeping pills from her doctor. One night Abram could not sleep and did what we all know we should not do – he took one of his wife’s pills. As a result of the strange reaction he had to the medication he heard a voice in his head telling him to leave everything he knows and go to an unknown place.  The rest is history.

My son’s story was asking a question for today – where are today’s prophets? What would happen today if someone turned to their family and said, “I heard a voice telling me we needed to leave all that we know and go to some unnamed destination where we will ultimately be rewarded but I have no idea when?” Today that person might be considered at best to have an untreated delusion or to have had a bad reaction to medication, and at worst to be on drugs. If he convinced others to follow him it might be considered the beginning of a cult.

So where does this leave us? I’ve written before about that still, small voice within us. The story of Lech Lecha and Avram’s journey is another example of trying to figure out when to listen to that voice and when to ignore it. Avram was lucky – his still, small voice was that of God.  Today it’s harder for each of us to identify and name that voice within. Sometimes we follow it and it turns out it was a purveyor of good advice. Other times… we aren’t so lucky.

May we all be blessed to read from our Torah, our history and internalize the lessons that we find within. May we be fortunate enough to identify that voice within. May we have the courage to follow our dreams – shared or not.
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbah Arlene

Friday, November 1, 2019

Parshat Noach: Two aspects of God

            A quick note before Shabbat. This week’s Torah portion is ParshatNoach. It contains two stories with very different views of God.
            In the first, we are presented with a God who becomes so angry or fed up with human kind that S/He makes the decision to destroy the entire world – all except for Noah, his family, and some animals so that there will be a remnant to start over with. In the end, God realizes that perhaps a cataclysmic flood event was a bit extreme, even with a generation as degenerate at the generation of the flood supposedly was. So God becomes contrite gives us the rainbow as symbol that God will never again destroy the world by a flood.
            Adonai, the God of mercy, justice and forgiveness, is also a God of anger. If God can get angry, then so can we. We are created in God’s image and try to emulate God’s attributes – in this case anger and the recognition that anger needs to be reigned it. In other words, we should control our anger, it should never control us. There is godliness in anger. It can provide the impetus for change and action, but it must be controlled.
            The second story, which is at the end of the Torah portion, is that of the Tower of Babel. Here God sees a world, about 700 years after the flood (according to the Sages), where everyone speaks the same language, and everyone gets along. They get along so well that they decide to cooperatively build a tower that will reach God. Why? There are different explanations including in order to make their name or just because they think they can.
            God sees the people are setting themselves an impossible task and decides to intervene. Why? One possibility is God saw that the people would be so occupied with building the tower that nothing else would get done – no crops planted, no stores selling things, no houses built, no babies being made. Another is that God didn’t want the people to have the consequences of setting themselves an impossible and unachievable task.
            In this story we have a parental or benevolent God who chooses to intervene in order to protect the people. The result: Babble! God “gifts” humans with the gift of different languages. Suddenly it’s much more difficult to understand each other. People instinctively gather together with those that speak the same language that they do. Then they have to start figuring out how to communicate with those who are different. A lesson that we are still learning to this day.      
            A God of anger and a God who is parental and benevolent. Two characteristics of God that are innately human, have both positive and negative aspects, and teach us that we do not have to be perfect to access the godliness within.   
            It might be a bit more difficult to access the godliness within this weekend as we turn the clocks back tomorrow night and mess up our sleep! But I have faith that we will prevail and get to wherever we need to be Sunday morning on time if a bit discombobulated.
             Have a blessed and lovely Shabbat.
            Shabbat Shalom,
            Rabbah Arlene