Monday, July 2, 2018

Manicures and Tefillin

Got my nails done the other day. It was the beginning of The 3 weeks. That period that begins the 3 weeks before Tisha B’Av, the day when we commemorate the destruction of the Temple and attribute all the other bad things in history that have happened to the Jewish people. 

Technically, the 3 weeks begins on the 17th day of Tammuz and is observed by fasting. It marks the day the Romans breached the walls of Jerusalem in 69 CE. This day begins the saddest period of the Jewish calendar and culminates on Tisha B’Av, 3 weeks later. 

While I do not fast, I thought I’d mark the day by taking off the bright pink nail polish I was wearing and changing it to something less garish and bright. So I found a nail place and in the best Hebrew I could muster explained what I was looking for. What followed was an arduous exercise wherein I had to convince the young woman manicurist that I did not want another loud bright color (even though I secretly really did) but required something quite muted. Finally I outed myself by identifying myself as a Rabbah, explaining that the 3 weeks were starting and that I wanted my nails to be appropriate. How ridiculous does that sound?! But she bought it. 

And all was right with my world. Until the next question… 
"!את רבה? אך זה? אי אפשר? יש תפילין? אסור!"
“You are a Rabbi? How is that possible? No way? Do you have/use Tefillin/phylacteries? It’s forbidden!!”

And so it began. She wanted to know how I could possibly wear tefillin. Where was it written that it was allowed? I countered with asking where was it written that it was forbidden. In the end, as my nail polish was setting, we agreed that the Jewish world was better off for having lots of different types and opinions and the key was everyone respecting everyone else. Pluralism at the nail salon. She agreed, a bit skeptically. 

All I wanted was to have my nails done in peace to commemorate the upcoming commemoration of the destruction of the Temple(s). But I suppose, if at least one of the Temples was destroyed because of Sinat Chinam, baseless hatred, then this conversation was a good start toward repairing the world. At least I hope it was. And the nails came out looking okay.  

NOTE: The prayer the Siddur is open to in the picture below is Baruch She'amar - Blessed is the One Who Spoke and the World Was... Our world, our very existence is fueled by words. Seemed only appropriate to chose this page.  

Friday, June 29, 2018

My first days in Israel... Jet lag, backyard wilderness, reconnecting with my soul

It's so good to be in my second home Israel! A piece of my soul has always lived here in Jerusalem and I meet up with it every two years or so when I come for the summer. 

As I'm about to enter my second Shabbat I figure I should get off at least a quick post. I've been very tired since I've been here. Didn't sleep much the first week but that didn't stop me from doing LOTS of walking. Had hoped that would cure the not sleeping from jet lag but it didn't. oh well. Am sleeping every other night now. Days are spent doing some davenning (praying) at the Conservative Yeshiva  (my home away from home) when I can get there early enough for the morning minyan,  doing some hevruta (pairs) learning with friends/colleagues, walking around the city, and beginning writing on my dream book (more on that later). Oh, and shopping - must be a visitor and contribute to the economy:)

I'm sharing an apartment with my good friend R'Laurie. We've shared a flat before. She comes every summer and I glom onto her place every other summer. Works out well for both of us - at least she hasn't kicked me out yet - so far so good. This place is right off Emek Refaim, a very touristy part of Jerusalem. Lots of shopping, lots of restaurants. Good coffee shops. We happen to be right across from  מוזיאון הטבע / the Nature Museum (or Museum of Natural History according to Google Maps) which is where I learned at a Beit Midrash with Nava Tehila a thousand years ago when I was a baby rabbit in rabbinical school. 

Best thing about this apartment is the back yard. Or as Lady Catherine de Bourgh (of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice) once described the side of the Bennet's household to Elizabeth, “Miss Bennet, there seemed to be a prettyish kind of a little wilderness on one side of your lawn."  Here are  some pictures of our prettyish kind of wilderness complete with pomegranate trees, the likes of which I'm sure they are unlikely to see in Hertfordshire. 

If you look closely there is a cat staring at me malevolently as he (?) blocks my way, daring me to try to and get past him to freedom beyond (I eventually made an end-run).

This is the pomegranate tree - or eitz rimon in hebrew. The fruit is beginning to turn. Maybe we'll luck out and a piece or two will be ready by the time we leave end of July!

Anyone who knows me knows I rarely sit outside. But it is so lovely out here that I find myself sitting outside and writing - or at lease sitting on the couch and gazing out the floor to ceiling windows and thinking about sitting outside:)

Have already spoken with my spouse and children to exchange Shabbat blessings. Now I will actually go into the wilderness beyond to celebrate Shabbat with a colleague. 

My next post will be about last Shabbat and this one. 

Wishing everyone a Shabbat of peace, health, love and happiness. Emphasis on peace. 


Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Proud Jew

On July 10. 2011 I wrote a post call "Me and My Kippah" about my journey to wearing a kippah full time. I recently wrote an update to that post. Here it is:

2017 Update
A few things have changed since this was first written. I still cover my head the majority of the time. However, I am now equally comfortable wearing a kippah, hat, or scarf/tichel. I studied the laws of kisui rosh (head covering for women) at the Conservative Yeshiva back in 2009  and at that time decided that it didn’t matter what I covered my head with as long as it was covered. The reasons – yirat shamayaim and anava  still hold true regardless of what type of cloth covers my head.


My final confession – given the political climate of our country at this time, I find myself wearing my kippah almost exclusively. I realized that for the first time I was actually using my kippah as a political statement and not the one that I expected to be making. I always thought that I would be making a feminist statement by wearing a kippah but I find that I am making a religious statement : I am a Jew. And I’m proud of it.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Torah Reviews its Memories

As people age realize they are nearing the end of their lives, they begin to engage in a process called life review. Life review is different for each person and involves a progressive return to memories of our life, actions and the people we’ve encountered. Or, in Jewish speak, it’s our psyche helping us do the work that will enable us to reach a point where we feel like we’ve done enough teshuva so that we can move on to the next stage in peace. 

This week’s Torah reading Nitzavim- Vayeilech, found near the end of the Torah, is comprised of two parshioyot which are read together as a single unit. This particular double parsha has always struck me as a sort of life review for the Torah, strange as that may seem. The work of the five books has been to get us ready to be an independent, moral people ready to enter the Promised Land. Here we are, a couple weeks before we complete our Torah cycle, prepared to enter. 

 It all comes back to the names of the Torah portions themselves. Simply put, Nitzavim means to stand and Vayeilech means “and he walked or he went.” Two words with polar opposite meanings that are supposed to harmonize into one joint meaning. Let’s take a closer look. 

Nitzavim is a rarely used word for standing (as in “you stand”) as opposed to the more commonly used word Omdim. According to various sources Nitzavim connotes not merely standing but also making oneself available to the exchange of ideas or taking a stand for something you believe in. 

Nitzavim I will associate with Moshe. Why Moshe? The parsha begins “Atem Nitzavem Hayom kulchem” You all stand this day. What is hayom/this day? Moshe’s final day, the day of his death. The whole book of Deuteronomy has been Moshe’s final goodbye, his life review of all that has happened since he answered God’s call to set the People Israel free from slavery, help them accept the Torah and ultimately take them to the edge of the River Jordan. 

I read Moshe’s use of the word nitzavim almost as a plea to this group of people who can be as recalcitrant as they can be accepting. Don’t just stand here, but engage, listen, be prepared to entrench, take a stand! `

Vayeilech, and he walked, I associate with Avraham and the famous scene in Parshat Lech Lecha: God said to Abram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you (Gen 12:1).  The word Vayeilech echoes Abraham as he answers God’s call to leave all that he has ever known to go to an unknown place and begin a new future. A new future of which, through Moshe, you and I have become the recipients.  

Life review.   The Torah is reminding itself and us that the story began with one person being asked to Lech/Go and ultimately make a covenant with God not only for himself but also for his family, then and in future. 

It ends with one person standing and asking others to stand/take a stand/nitzavim at that moment for themselves and also for  “him that is not here with us this day” (Deut 29:14).

What are the messages of Nitzavim- Vayeilech?  Two opposites can form one single unit. Take a stand in order to move to the next level.  Walk into the unknown in order to listen well and know what is worth believing in.  All are instructive messages with which to begin our review of this past year and begin planning for the new year.

The Virtues and Zeal of Rehabilitation

Numbers 8:1-12:16

This week’s parsha begins in a rather mundane way, with God telling Moses to instruct Aaron how to kindle the lamps of the Menorah. The next verse is the one that really interests me. “Aaron did so; he kindled the lamps at the front of the Menorah, as the Lord had commanded Moses.” (Numbers 8:3) Why did the Torah include this verse? What is so special about Aaron carrying out this fairly ordinary command that it warrants its own rather repetitive sentence? 

Rashi interprets the phrase “Aaron did so” to say that this shows Aaron’s virtue in that he did not deviate from God’s command in the performance of a mitzvah, even one which Moses instructed him to do in the name of God.  Rashi is known for interpreting Torah verses in the pshat, the simplest or face value sense of the words. It makes sense that Aaron would follow God’s command and, as Moses relayed God’s commands to Aaron the majority of the time, it also makes sense that he would follow commandments relayed by Moses. At this point I am not sure where the sense of Aaron’s virtue comes into play, especially since it was not too long ago that we experienced the incident of the Golden Calf.  Perhaps Rashi is aiding in the process of the rehabilitation of Aaron’s character.  

I found two other explanations that resonated. The first is from Or HaChaim, a 17th century Moroccan rabbi and Torah commentator. He wrote that for Aaron to light the Menorah he would have to clean the lamps of Menorah each day. In order to clean and properly prepare the lamps, he would have to remove them, clean them, and reassemble them. In essence, Aaron would be performing the mitzvah of building a new Menorah each and every day.  By stating, “Aaron did so” in the verse, we receive confirmation that Aaron took on the obligation of fulfilling this important mitzvah each day and also obligated his children, the future Cohanim, to fulfilling it as well.  

This explanation satisfies my sense of academic inquiry (and fits with my theory of character rehabilitation), but I needed a different explanation to fulfill my sense of personal curiosity. I found it in a commentary by the Vilna Gaon, a famed rabbinic scholar in the 18th century, expounding on Rashi’s comment that Aaron’s following the instructions was a virtue. He said that Rashi’s point was that not only did Aaron never deviate from the precise instructions but, and here is the part that caught my interest, he never varied in his enthusiasm for this same commandment in all the years that he kindled the Menorah in the Tabernacle. The passion, zeal, and commitment that he felt the first time he completed the act stayed with him each and every time he completed this mitzvah.

The simple words “Aaron did so” now take on a whole new meaning. They teach us that we too can make a mistake and be rehabilitated. They teach us that we can strive to perform a task, even something that seems fairly bland like kindling lights, with passion and commitment, each and every time we conduct the act. The lesson that we learn from these seemingly innocuous words is potent - our commitment to an act need not diminish over time if we have the proper kavannah (intention) as we perform it.

We’ve recently celebrated Shavuot and received the Torah. Who knows what we can accomplish if we truly put our hearts, minds and souls into becoming partners with the Creator in balancing the world?

Food for thought:

Is there anything that you do on a regular basis that you resent that could be elevated if you changed your attitude toward it?

Friday, May 5, 2017

Why Holiness Isn't Boring

         I used to think that reading about holiness in Leviticus was rather boring. That changed when I was able to reframe my relationship with the text after an in depth study of the first few sentences of chapter 19, also known as the holiness code.  
In Leviticus19:2 God tells Moshe: “Speak to the whole  Israelite community (kol adat) and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, your God am holy.” 
So what’s unusual here? We’re used to God telling Moshe to speak to the people of Israel but not to the whole Israelite community. That’s new. That’s inclusive – men, women, and children– everyone is included in the term community. 
Biblical scholar Jacob Milgrom writes that this is the only place in Leviticus where the term eda occurs in what he called a commission speech - a speech with instructions that are to be heard by every responsible Israelite – and that’s enough to show its importance. 
Other commission speeches containing eda (another form of adat) occur in two places in Exodus: one regarding the preparation of the paschal sacrifice (Exodus 12:3) and another for assembling the building materials for the tabernacle (Exodus 35:1).
Milgrom goes on to say that the word eda “unambiguously means the entire people Israel … Its unique placement here underscores the importance of the prescriptions that follow: they are quintessentially the means by which Israel can become a holy nation.”
         The verse continues: “...and you, Moshe, will say to them, you [second person plural] shall be holy, for I, Adonai Your God, am holy.” 
         So why are we to be holy? Because God is holy. Yes, but what does that mean? We already know that the command to holiness for the people Israel is an inclusive one because it is being given to everyone. And the commandments that come after, commandments that tell us how to behave in order to be holy – to keep Shabbat, to honor one’s parent, tonnot worship idols– are given to us as a group.  The verbs that are used are in the plural.
One might think that such important commandments would be addressed in the singular to one person at a time, or if in the plural, than to small groups of people, not to everyone all at once.  Research suggests that the commandments are written this way to show that any Jew can attain the highest principles of Judaism, can observe the mitzvot and strive for daily holiness – that’s nicely egalitarian.               
         There are commandments that do use singualar verbs. One should note that those with singular verbs are specifically actions between people (bein adam l’chavero) whereas the actions with the plural verbs are related to actions that reflect on God (bein adam l’makom).
         In the commandment to be holy because our God is holy, the verb used is t’hiyu, which means, “you [in the plural] will be.”
         One way to emulate God is to be holy like God. How? We act in holy ways by fulfilling mitzvot that encourage godliness to the world. Our parasha brings us a little closer to figuring out how to do that – through inclusion and equality and the equal opportunity commission of mitzvot.

This dvar appears in the May 4, 2017 edition of the Washington Jewish Week. But it's based on a dvar I wrote years ago in Rabbinical School about holiness. I was prompted to revisit that dvar because of all the turmoil going on in the world today. Particularly in our country, in our government. 

I think it's important for us all to remember that we are put here to emulate the Awesome One Above through bringing acts of holiness into the world. Particularly in the face of insanity. And hopelessness. And craziness. It's the only way we can keep our own sanity and hope and integrity. 

Shabbat Shalom, 
Rabbah Arlene



Sunday, March 12, 2017

Purim thoughts 2017

Purim. A holiday when we wear masks and disguises. Our outsides get to take a break from all the posturing that it does on a daily basis. Our innermost selves are allowed to run riot for a day.

Is one aspect of ourselves better than the other? I don't think so. I think sometimes our insides and our outsides get mixed up and we forget what is real. We forget what is truth. And we forget just what is important enough to fight for even if the result is that we make ourselves vulnerable.

May this holiday of Purim remind us of the importance of acknowledging our core and give us the courage to make ourselves vulnerable - especially when we are fighting for something we believe in.