Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Sh'Asani Israel - Davinning in Airports


Okay, I’m back.  I just finished davening shacharit at the airport. The sunrise contains the most beautiful hues of oranges and pinks ranging from the deepest deep to the palest of pale. What an amazing sight to see as one says Baruch She’amar… and wonders at the work of creation!

But it was also a bit strange, okay, very strange, saying this shacharit. Here I am, a woman, in a turquoise silk tallit, beaded red/gold kippah, and tefillin, saying her prayers in one of the most public and to me, foreign, spaces I’ve ever prayed in. The words and customs took on new meanings the standing and sitting, the bowing here and there, the occasional beating of the breast. To say I felt self conscious would be an understatement. I couldn’t lose myself in the prayers or in the beauty of the sunrise because of my surroundings – lots of people who are not praying, most aren’t Jewish, not an orthodox person in sight (am I actually missing the dati’im in Jerusalem! Oy va voi!) and of the course the background music that for some reason is alternating between Christmas and some sort of country-western music.

So here are some of the prayers/words that jumped out at me:
She’asyani Israel – who created me a Jew
Shelo Asayin goy – okay, these words aren’t in the Sim Shalom conservative siddur I was using but they were screaming in my head anyway, wanting to be heard.
Jump to the Amidah with – oh just about all of it… and I felt thankful that I automatically add “v’kol yoshvei tevel” (and all who reside in the world)  at the end of my oseh shalom these days.
And then the big finish – Aleinu -  talking about those other nations, idol worship, all eventually uniting with the One Gd… at least there weren’t any teens dancing a box step to Aleinu with me but still…

So what does this say about me? I prayed with tallit and tefilin in an airport, something I’ve never done before. Sure, I’ve davenned misc services when waiting in an (almost) all Jewish space to go to Israel but there were other people davenning then too. And I’d hadn’t worn tefillin at those times – was usually ma’ariv. I prayed but was uncomfortable. But it felt like the right thing to do.

I’m glad I davenned – it fulfilled my need to continue my spiritual practice of daily davenning that I’d lost when I entered rabbinical school and reacquired during my tenure in Israel. I’ve been trying to figure out if the whole keva/kavanna discussion works here but I’m not sure – I am davening out of a sense of obligation and responsibility, but not sure if I am doing it out of a sense of commandness or because it feels like the right thing to do at this time of my life. So much to think about… to blog about… aren’t you all so lucky?

The sunrise at the airport; picture doesn't do it justice but you get the point:

I'm back in the USA!!!

1:32 pm Jerusalem time…. 6:32 am Philadelphia airport time (I am truly in the Twilight Zone)

I’m back in the states.  Didn’t truly realize it until I surfaced from my fog and heard the song Santa Baby being piped through the airport. This was followed by a particularly lively rendition of Jingles Bells and now an intense and melodical version of Avé Maria is playing.  I almost made it through an entire Christmas season without hearing ANY Christmas music – except for when I tried to sing Adon Olam to the Little Drummer Boy… but nothing that one does at an early morning minyan (except daven, that is) counts, as it is usually too early to think properly anyway.

I had been reading an engrossing novel in Hebrew  גאווה ודעה קדומה מהסופרת ג’יין אוסטן  also known as Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. It helps that I know the novel by heart so I’m not too tripped up by the strange Hebrew renditions of archaic English forms. The story is funny in any language. And they’ve done a lovely job of keeping to the true spirit of the novel in the Hebrew translation. Anyway, I had been reading the novel when I realized that it might be time for shacharit – I looked up to search for Netz Hachama – the first sightings of sunrise to make sure I wasn’t too early (though some – the Vatikim in particular - would argue that I was too late by that time… but that’s for another day) – when I heard “Santa Baby.” All I have to say is “ugh” and welcome home, Arlene.

Oh, and there is snow here at the airport. Just 3 days ago I was walking on the beach with my long lost adopted big sister Ohella in Ashkelon and I was shvitzing (read: sweating a lot).  Jerusalem was even warm – in the upper 60s and low 70s. And here it is COLD – and I don’t have a coat. Okay – kvetching is done, just had to get it out of my system.

Will write more later when I am in a place with wifi. The airport charges $8 (nearly 32 NIS!) for 24 hours worth of internet access. Not worth it for one hour while I await my plane to Baltimore and home….

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Last post from Israel

Can't believe 6 months has flown by! I came to Israel kicking and screaming - didn't want to be separated from Husband and Children for so long. But the experience has been so much more enriching, rewarding - באמת -transforming, than I ever thought possible. I'll blog on that from home as the days go on and I deconstruct my experience; it's very important for a reconstructionist to know how to deconstruct, btw.

Thought I'd share some of the pictures I've been snapping during my last week in Jerusalem. They are in no particular order... just things that struck my fancy.  Enjoy!

Friday, December 25, 2009

2 Important places: Kibbutz Hannaton and Beit Midrash Nava Tehilla

So many things I want to write about before I leave Israel next week, while they are still fresh on my mind.
The first: Kibbutz Hannaton. Kibbutz Hannaton is very difficult to find on the web - hopefully they will change that soon (right Yoav?) - but here are a couple of links: 
and Hannaton Educational Center, ( a good mini movie with pictures), 
and lastly there is a link through the Masorti movement .

Kibbutz Hannaton was founded in 1983-4 by members of the Conservative movement. It has undergone many ups and downs since then and today is on an upswing. Hannaton is growing with new members joining all the time,  land is soon to be prepared for new houses to be built, a second gan was recently opened for the kibbutz and neighboring children and there is a wonderful mikveh on the property (more about that in a minute). In this new renaissance, it is becoming an educational center with an inviting guesthouse, good food and welcoming kibbutz members.

Here is a description written by James and Debbie Maisels about the vision of the educational center: 
Kibbutz Hannaton is a renewed community and educational center, in a beautiful setting in the Galilee, where diverse, committed young Jews are working to claim Israel's future by living and teaching the ideals of Pluralism, Spirituality, Social Justice, Environmentalism, and Peace and Reconciliation, all in the context of rigorous text study. Our programs will include full time beit midrash study, spiritual retreats, seminars, and internships which engage our core values. Along with a group of passionate rabbis and educators from multiple denominations, our goal is to engage contemporary Jews with a meaningful, open, ethical and transformative Judaism.

I first heard about Hannaton in the early 80s when it first started but it didn't enter my consciousness again until this September when I participated in a retreat for the month of Elul on Teshuva and Transformation. It truly was transforming for me on many different levels. I engaged in deep and exciting learning on the teshuva process with wonderful teachers such as Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels (teaches at Pardes), Debbie Jacobson-Maisels (man, can this woman sing!),  Rabbi Ruth Gan Kagan of Nava Tehilla (my honored Hassidut teacher), and Rabbi Haviva Ner David (my honored teacher of women's halachic issues) among others. I found a place in Israel that I feel I could live in if I were ever to move to Israel and I met two women who would become very important teachers for me - Rabbi Ruth and Rabbi Haviva. 

In meeting Rabbi Ruth I learned about the Nava Tehilla Beit Midrash - a weekly learning session from 3pm - 10pm on Tuesday evenings in Jerusalem. Here I studied Kabbala with the awesome and inspiring Avraham Leader (see my post on Words from a few weeks ago) and Hassidut and the prayer Ana B'Koach with Ruth.  Although I have been traveling for the past several years in a more liberal and spiritual Jewish world, I have leaned toward the more pragmatic sides of Judaism (for example - even with his drawbacks, I really dig Maimonides!) - but the learning that I've done at Nava Tehilla has enabled me to open myself to many new experiences. I even liked some of them! One result - I meditate now more than I ever did - there is a great one for before bed where it's like you are flying - too cool...

In meeting Rabbi Haviva Ner David I found someone who could not only satisfy my desire to learn the halachic underpinnings of Niddah and Mikveh (various issues of the Family Purity laws) but could also help me transvalue them to become meaningful in the post halachic world I live in. I will always be grateful for that. In addition, Haviva runs the Mikveh at Hannaton which is a place where nonOrthodox people can go and experience mikveh in ways other than just for family purity.  Haviva is willing to talk to people about mikveh and help develop ceremonies for lifecycle and other life shaping events. Most importantly to me, she has become my friend and for that I will always be grateful.

While this is not the best-written blog entry I've ever written I do hope you see my points. I haven't been sleeping much lately, so much to do and experience and celebrate and mourn in my last weeks (now days!) in Israel. I'll be posting more soon.

Shabbat Shalom - Arlene

Monday, December 21, 2009

Tahara - being part of community

I participated in my first Tahara about a year or so ago.  As a Jew and Rabbit, I feel strongly that to be a member of a community means taking part in all aspects of community - that includes simchas and sadnesses, births and deaths.  I haven't participated in a Tahara since I've been in Israel but my soul friend Chava just wrote about one that she participated in on her blog Lightwavejourney and it reminded me that I've been wanting to post this for a while.  

Tahara fact: did you know that the prayer Ana B'Koach is part of the Tahara ritual? It is a prayer that helps the soul ascend to new levels. Just as it helps our souls ascend to new heights when we sing Ana B'koach during morning services or during kabbalat shabbat so too does it help our souls ascend to shamayim after we die.

Here is my piece on Tahara from 2008:

“Source of kindness and compassion, whose ways are ways of mercy and truth, You have commanded us to act with loving kindness and righteousness towards the dead, and to engage in their proper burial. Grant us the courage and strength to perform this work properly: this holy task of cleaning and washing the body, dressing the dead in shrouds, and burying the deceased. … Help us to see Your face in the face of the deceased, even as we see you in the faces of those who share this task with us. Source of life and death be with us now and always.”
From the prayer recited before coming into the presence of the Metah (the deceased).  

            Today I took part in my first Tahara, the ritual physical and spiritual preparation of the Metah (the deceased).  There was such holiness to be found in that sterile room located on the bottom level of the funeral home. Five women gathered with a sense of profound obligation and respect to prepare a member of our synagogue for the final ceremony that she will take part in as a member of the Jewish community.
            With prayer, verses of text and no talk save that which related directly to the awesome task at hand, we carefully bathed and wrapped the Metah in her burial shroud. The white shroud stood in contrast to and in harmony with the red of the earth of Eretz Israel that was ritually sprinkled on and around her in the casket. The white of holiness, purity, and possibility alongside the red of life, passion, connection to our earth combined to tell the outline of a person’s life.
            There is such symmetry in our lifecycle rituals –  
We lovingly and joyfully rush to bathe and swaddle a newborn child; we slowly and deliberately wash and wrap our Metah.

We drape our children as they come of age with a tallit, our young adults as they marry with a tallit or kittel (ritual white robe); we cover our Metah with kittel and/or tallit as their final garment.

We prepare ourselves for life affirming immersion in the mayim chayim (living waters) of the mikvah with the same thoroughness with which we prepare the body of the Metah for her final immersion in the earth’s womb. 
            I stand in awe of our tradition. I am grateful for the rituals that usher us, body and neshama (soul), into this world and through our life and I am grateful for the rituals that guide us, body and neshama, to the place beyond. Source of life and death be with us now and always. Amen.

Arlene Berger

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Thoughts on the Wall and the Walk

I have many thoughts about that walk of a couple of weeks ago. However, a friend and colleague of mine, Rabbi Elyse Goldstein of Toronto, wrote a beautiful description on her blog "Jerusalem of Gold(stein)" so instead of re-creating a less eloquent wheel, I thought I would publish part of her post here. BTW, Rabbi Elyse is the Kolel: the Adult Center for Liberal Jewish Learning. Check it out!

She writes:

"So my family and I took part in a quickly-organized protest rally convened by a consortium of groups under the banner “Free Jerusalem” on the last Saturday night of November in Jerusalem. The Jerusalem press reported that a few hundred “secular Jerusalemites” marched. In truth it was close to 2500 people of all ages, with many, many kipot and tzitzit, skirts and hair-covering scarves. The Conservative and Reform movements were there in full form. Secular? If by that you mean those who do not wear or live in black-and-white. The speeches emphasized the willingness of the protesters to dialogue with the haredim, and their desire for a peaceful and united city, but their unwillingness to let Jerusalem devolve into a fundamentalist city with its own brand of morality police, run by those who do not recognize the rights of all citizens of that city. Speakers from the Knesset held kowtowing politicians responsible for placating and turning a blind eye to violent, disruptive, and even illegal haredi acts and the growing haredi coercion in all levels of local and national politics. Frenkel spoke eloquently of her simple desire to “serve The Creator in joy” as a woman. We sang “Jerusalem of Gold” and then, most powerfully, we were asked to sing Hatikva— ‘lihiyot am chofshi- to be a free people in our own land, in Eretz Yisrael and in Jerusalem’— to reaffirm that our protest was a Zionist act of love for the Jewish State of Israel. People openly wept, and I felt within the crowd a fierce dedication to both Israel and to its heart, Jerusalem. The Israeli who had marched next to me saying “I’ve had it, I’m moving to Tel Aviv” turned to me at the end and said, “Now I know I can’t leave but have to become active in the movement for a free Jerusalem. I want my Jerusalem back.” "

"After the peaceful protest ended, 2500 people went up the pedestrian mall of Ben Yehuda Street, looking for felafel and making their way home. We were met by three dancing Hasidic men with huge yellow flags that said “Mashiach” on them; they had been trying valiantly to drown out the protest by singing to a recording of “Mashiach, Mashiach” as loud as possible into hand-held microphones. We tried to talk with them; they sang louder. We formed a circle and started dancing to the music; they turned off the music and moved away. I kept thinking of all the Jews who have pretty much abandoned Judaism while sending money to haredim so “they will be Jewish for us.” I kept thinking of the approaching festival of Hanukkah and its insistence on “dispelling the darkness.” In Jerusalem, a thriving new generation is trying to rekindle the light, by redefining who they will be in the years ahead. I wish them success— for Jerusalem’s sake."

Rabbi Elyse's post captures the serious, hopeful and surreal atmosphere of that Jerusalem night. It was heartening to see so many of my fellow Rabbinical students from all denominations of US Jewry (and Israeli as well!) out protesting for something that we all can believe in. Denominational differences aside, we are all Jews with a common heritage. The Western Wall, this City - they belong to all of us. It saddens me that the Wall has turned into an ultra orthodox synagogue, that there are modesty police around accosting anyone that doesn't fit in with whatever model of perfect Judaism is being represented by their leaders.

Do I sound bitter? I am a bit, but mainly I am sad. Once, many many years ago, I could go to the Wall and pray, I could be awed by the thousands of years of history that had been enacted at that spot, I could touch something material that so many women like myself (or maybe not like me...) have touched... I could feel something mystical inside of me. I can't anymore. The Wall as it was doesn't exist like that anymore - not for me nor for many others who feel disenfranchised or just alienated by the atmosphere there. I don't know what else to say, so I'll stop here. I'll just end by saying that I am happy to have had the opportunity to participate in the beginning of something - something that will hopefully bring about needed change - in a peaceful manner.

On that note: Shabbat Shalom and Chag Urim Sameach.  (That means - Happy Chanukah!! - our Festival of Freedom. More on Chanukah next week.)

Pictures of Take back the city!

Just a few of the 2000 people showing their support for pluralism and religious freedom in Jerusalem on Saturday night, November 28, 2009.  A walk from Paris Square to Zion Square in Jerusalem.

Pic: #1:  The Crowd on the Way to Zion Square. 
Pic #2:   Me and Alanna wearing tee shirts printed by the Masorti Movement. They say "HaKotel l'Kulam/lan" meaning the Western Wall is for everyone (male and/or female). Great shirts - Great message.
Pic #3:   Walking past the Great Synagogue on King George V Street.

Pic #4:   Lots of signs
Pic #5:   Students from Conservative Yeshiva and Jewish Theological Seminary/Machon Schechter show their support.

Pictures 1, 3, and 4 taken by Adrian Schell. Thanks Adi!

Friday, November 27, 2009

"Take back the city, by walking!"

Am going on a walk this Motzei Shabbat. It's called "Take back the city, by walking!" The city is Jerusalem - the exact place is the Kotel.  Perhaps you heard about the woman who was arrested at the Kotel for wearing a tallit and carrying a Torah. I'll have more on that in a later post - my housemate Amy was there and wrote a piece on it that I will share. But first I wanted to tell you about the Walk on Saturday night.  Here is some of the PR material:
“Taking back the city, by walking!”
Secular, religious and masorti Jews:
say put an end to attempts of haredi coercion
and unite to restore sanity, freedom
and mutual respect to the city!

Nofrat Frenkel, a NOAM graduate, member of Kehillat Hod Vehadar and a fourth-year medical student at the Ben Gurion University of the Negev, was arrested last week after daring to put on a tallit at the main Kotel plaza. This incident joins a series of events that have practically expropriated the Kotel Hamaaravi from the hands of of Am Yisrael. For example, until very recently, groups of students or tourists would spontaneously break out in song and dance in the public plaza (Am Yisrael Hai, Kol Haolam Kulo). Now, however, if there is singing and dancing, they are immediately and brutally halted by the Modesty Guard of the Kotel rabbi; the public plaza itself has recently been divided in a way that allows the rapid erection of a mechitza between men and women; even the entrance from the parking area has been separated between the sexes; emotional ceremonies in which olim chadashim receive their teudot zehut have been cancelled after the Kotel rabbi insisted that the families adhere to separation between men and women; sign have been placed around the plaza cautioning people to maintain modesty; and the rabbi has many other ideas. The Kotel, a symbol that united Israeli and Diaspora Jews, is today, in effect, placed in the hands of the haredim. This is a hostile takeover by a small, fundamentalist group in the history of Am Yisrael (the haredim) – and the methodical exclusion of all those who do not adopt its code of behavior. We must liberate the Kotel, a second time.

After examining various options and ideas for a fitting response to this Kotel incident, we decided to join the forum of organizations for a free Jerusalem, which protests against the expropriation of the Kotel and against the haredi radicalization in Jerusalem in general – the haredi violence in the Intel and Karta car park incidents.

This coming Motzaei Shabbat (28/11), together with the forum, we will hold a large public march, for the members of the organizations, for the general public and for members of the Movement from around the country. The march will begin at 19:00, in Kikar Paris, and will culminate in a rally, at 20:00, in Kikar Zion. (there may be a change to the route, in accordance with police dictates). A Masorti rabbi will speak at the rally, as will Nofrat Frenkel.

The forum of organizations for a free Jerusalem includes: Hitorerut, Vaad Kiriat Yovel, Ruach Hadasha, Meretz, Tzeirei Haavoda, Tzeirei Halikud, Mifleget Or, the Greens-Meimad, Marom (Masorti Movement), Neemanei Torah Vaavoda, Forum Hatzeirim and Telem Students.

I"ll let you know how it turns out. 

Shabbat Shalom -

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Chanukah: Aps and Beer

Ever read J It covers the Jewish news of the San Francisco area. I originally started reading it because a friend of mine, Rachel Freedenberg (and former babysitter for my children!), is a writer for the site. And I've kept reading even though I don't, in my itinerancy (is that even a word?), get anywhere near SF. It just has good articles in it. Case in point. This week there are at least two articles that caught my interest immediately.

The first is by Rachel and is called  "Eight nights of apps: iPhone programs put Chanukah in the palm of your hand." The description is:
Lighting the menorah, playing dreidel and other Chanukah traditions have gone virtual. A slew of Chanukah-themed programs for the iPhone and iPod Touch have popped up in Apple's iTunes App Store, all of which have a unique take on the ancient holiday. Rachel Freedenberg talks to two app developers who put their own spin on the Festival of Lights. "  (NOTE: I LOVE ipod aps!)

The second is called "Eight gifts for the beer-lover on your list." The description is:
Got a "beerie" on your Chanukah list? You can stop agonizing over what to get them. San Francisco author and beer expert Brian Yaeger has eight fabulous gift ideas that will delight any Jewish hops aficionado, from He'Brew to 8 Malty Nights.

How could you not love something with that name? Especially if your family has a long relationship with beer as mine does. In fact, I remember asking my grandfather why I never saw him drink water - he only drank beer or coffee (and the occasional scotch). His answer? "Water rusts my pipes."

I know I should be wishing people a Happy Thanksgiving today but I just don't seem to feel it here in Israel. So, let's get ready for Chanukah!
Kol Tuv, Arlene

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Dvar Torah - Zohar: Spirit of Words and Letters

This is a Dvar Torah that I gave this past Shabbat Toldot (11/21/09) at the Jerusalem Reconstructionist Minyan.  It in I share my wonder at the power of words.


Baruch She'emar V'ha'ya ha'olam -
Blessed is the one who spoke and the world WAS.
We chant these words each morning - but do we truly comprehend - in our sleepy shacharit selves - what these words really mean?

Blessed is the one who spoke and the world WAS.

What Power there is in the ability to create with words! We acknowledge daily that our Creator has that power - but do we realize that we have it too?

We, human beings, are created b'Tzelem Elokim, in Gd's image.  As Jews we spend our lives trying to emulate Gd's attributes - mercy, justice, forgiveness, loving kindness.  Just as Gd rested on the Shabbat after a week of work and creativity, so too do we rest. And Just as Gd created the world with a word, so too do we create with words.  Granted, we don't create on such a grand scale as an entire world - but we certainly have the ability, the power, to impact those around us, to change our reality.

We have the ability to nurture and create - AND we have the ability to wound and destroy.

There are several stories in our tradition about how the world was created. One of my favorites is from the Zohar, a 13th century book of mysticism that is one of the central texts in Kabbalah. It's a story about how Gd created the world with letters, the building blocks of these words that we've been discussing.

But first, a quote from Sefer Yetzirah - the Book of Foundation- another Kabbalistic text. You'll pardon my loose translation.
ספר יצירה פרק ב' משנה ב

עֶשְׂרִים וּשְׁתַּים אווֹתִיויּוֹת חָקְקָן חָצְבָן צָרְפָן שָׁקְלָן וְהֵמִירָן וְצָר בָּהֶם אֶת כָּל הַיְּצוּר וְאֶת כָּל הֶעָתִיד לָצוּר׃

“With 22 letters Gd embossed, chiseled, weighed, changed, refined, and shaped. AND with them formed/created all beings which are in existence and all those which will be formed in all time to come. “

So not only do words have power, but these much smaller units, these letters, have the power to create as well! They are extremely active. Look what they can do! They are expert artisans! With them we can become expert artisans - shaping and crafting our thoughts and utterances in order to have the truest form, to have the most impact.

In Bereshit Rabba there is a midrash that the Torah was created 2000 years before the world. During that 2000 years, apparently Gd was hanging out, contemplating and playing with the letters of the alphabet. Let us now, together, imagine the story of the creation of the Torah and therefore of the world. We are at the moment when Gd was ready to create the world….

Just as a reminder, The torah begins with the words Beresheit Bara Elohim Et...
What letter does the Torah being with?  (Answer: Beit ב)
What letter do we normally think of as the first letter? (Answer: Aleph א)
So why does the torah begin with the second letter Beit ב?
Let me tell you the story from the beginning of the Zohar.

It begins as follows:

Rav Hanmuna Sava said: "Before creation began, the alphabetical letters were in reversed order; thus, the two first words in the Book of Genesis, berashith, bara, begin with Bet; the next two, Alohim, ath, with Aleph. Why did it not commence with A, the first letter? The reason of this inversion is as follows: For two thousand years before the creation of the world the letters were concealed and hidden, being objects of divine pleasure and delight.

"When the Divine Being, however, willed to create the world, all the letters appeared before Him, from last to first.

The Zohar goes on to detail how each letter appeared before the Kaddosh Baruch Hu and said "Create the world with me because...." And until Gd reached the predetermined letter, Gd would give them a reason that the world was NOT to be built with them and send them away.

These reasons were in 3 main categories:

The first category of rejection is composed of letters that make up words with negative connotations. 

-The last letter of the aleph bet went first - the TAV - and although it anchors the word EMET, truth,  it was rejected because it also anchor the word  MAVET  - death.

-The  ש,  ר, ק  are rejected because together they make up the word שקר and Gd did not want the world to be built on lies. And the Lies that are especially dangerous are the ones that contain a grain of truth in them.

The next category of rejection was due to how the letter physically appeared.

-So although the letter פ stands for the word Purkena which earns the redemption it was not chosen  because it "signifies hidden transgression, like a serpent striking, then tucking its head back into its body. Just so, one who sins bows his head, stretching out his hands."

-The letter ט had a similar problem. Although the Gd is called in Psalms "Tov V'Yashar - good and upright" Gd responds that the letter ט will not be used in the creation of the world, because the goodness is hidden within it and concealed from sight as it is written " How abundant is Your goodness that you have hidden it away for those in awe of You. (Psalms 31:20) 

The final category of rejection was because the letter already had an important purpose and could not be spared from that role without dire consequences to the universe.
-For example, the letter Samech stands for SMICHA or support. It is needed to support the letter NUN which stands for NOFLIM which means fallen. As in the expression Somech Hashem  (Gd supports all who fall, Psalms 145: 14)

-The Dalet and Gimel have a similar story. Dalet stands for DELET which means poverty and Gimel for GOMEL as in help or the benefactor. So together they sustain each other.

After reviewing nearly all the letters, the Bet comes before Gd.

Then came B and said: "Create the world by me, because I am the initial letter of beracha (blessing) and through me all will bless you, both in the world above as in the world below." "Indeed by you I will create the world." said the Holy One, "You will be the beginning of creation."

What's interesting here is that the Aleph is still remaining, as this Alphabet Parade began with the letter TAV and went backwards. But after the Bet left, the Aleph did not appear before Gd until Gd called out to it and asked it why it hadn't appeared like all the other letters? The Aleph's reply - basically what was the point? It was obvious from BET's face that it had received the prize, and it wouldn't become the "monarch of the universe" to take it back and give it to another. So why bother showing up.  At this Gd reminded Aleph that it shall be the first of all the letters, and that Gd's unity - ACHDUT- is symbolized by it. "With you all counting begins and every deed in the world. No union is actualized except by the Aleph."

Gd made high, large letters and low small letters - from last to first. So we find "BET BET - BERESHIT BARA and ALEPH ALEPH - ALOHIM AET." The letters above and below representing the upper world -  the heavens and the lower world - earth. I see this repetition of letters as a representation of our relationship and partnership with Gd. Bereshit is Gd’s blessing, Gd’s beginning of creating the world – Bara is our blessing and our ability to continue in that creation.  Alohim is Gd’s name, the name that stresses the attributes of Justice, Might, and Creativity – At (et) is a preposition – that’s us! – there are so many possibilities that can arise after a preposition!

I first chose this story, well, because I’ve been studying Kabbalah with some amazing teachers and wanted to share some of the Torah that I’ve learned. But also, I knew there was a connection between this story and Parashat Toldot, but I just couldn’t figure out what to say at first. There is so much going on in it - especially around the birthright - and most of my thoughts felt rather trite.

But we see in this week's parashah the power of words. We see the blessings that can be bestowed with them and the problems that can be created with them. We see the impact of rash vows, of promises, of schemes, of simple speech.

There are modern implications to this birthright story as well. I spent the last two days in Bethlehem with the group Encounter - meeting Palestinians and learning about the issues at hand.  We KNOW that violence will not solve the problems that face Israel and the Palestinians. We also KNOW that words can have an impact - words can make a difference if people are just willing to meet, to talk and most importantly to listen.
The world, our world, was created through these amazingly powerful, active letters, the building blocks of the words that make up our daily lives.

My prayer for all of us is that we learn to choose our words carefully, down to each and every letter, so that they can be received in the positive way that we intend and that their final result and is peace and a better world.

-De Manhar, Nurho, trans.: Zohar: Bereshith to Lekh Lekha, ed. by John Hare (HTML at
-Leader, Avraham. Beit Midrash Nava Tehilla, Fall 2009 (Thank you Avraham for teaching me the text in Aramaic and English with only the occasional English word thrown in.)
-Matt, Daniel C. (Translator). The Zohar: Pritzker Edition, Vol. 1
-Rothberg, Shaiya.  Conservative Yeshiva, Fall 2009

To learn more about Encounter go to:

Monday, November 23, 2009

Pluralism and Kippot

I have participated in and am participating in several groups that go in for pluralism and religious diversity within the Jewish spectrum. As the Itinerant Rabbit that I am, I am a wanderer amongst the many fields of Judaism. I grew up in a mainly secular home - very culturally Jewish and Zionist - but pretty much non-practicing. Went to Orthodox Day School - davenned at a Conservative shul with the grandparents, a shtetl like Orthodox shul with the great-grands, a Modern Orthodox shul of which my NCSY advisor was the Rav and my yeshiva/day school. I was searching for stability, for something to give balance to my life and help me understand the bigger picture. I found it in traditional Jewish practice.   Have been a ba'alat teshuva (born again Jew - sort of), fairly observant Conservative Jew and now am going to be ordained a Reconstructionist Rabbi. These days I feel comfortable almost anywhere and also no where. My practice is fluid at the moment - not sure where it will finally end up.

I try to be accepting of others and of differences. In our house we have our philosophy of choice - I choose to celebrate my Judaism this way, you choose to celebrate your Judaism that way. Just as I do not want to be judged, I will not judge; just as I want to be respect, I will respect.

It was only recently that I realized how truly post-denominational (whatever that is) that I am - I really try not to judge others in their religious practice or lack thereof. I feel my rabbinate calls me to help others connect, in whatever way works for them, with Judaism. I am blessed that I can find open windows and doors to let people in - and if I can help them move more deeply into Jewish practice/thought/culture once they are in, then all the better. If not, then I hope they can feel satisfied and connected where they are.

I do feel that while Jews are Jews - there are some that will always be "other" to me at some point - for the good or the bad. That's just the way it is. Doesn't mean it will always be that way though. I have difficulty when I am confronted with people who do not have respect for people who do not practice the way they do - whether they are more or less observant, I don't care - I still see the value judgement as plain wrong and destructive to our collective peoplehood.

So, I was wallowing in these kinds of thoughts on my way home tonight at about 10pm. I got out of the cab and began to cross the street to my building. In the middle of the road a guy in the 20s or 30s stopped me and asked if he could ask me a question. I knew it would be about my kippah, as I was wearing it openly instead of the usual frummie head scarf or jaunty beret that I have taken to wearing in Israel. Interestingly, the question was about my kippah, just not in the way I expected. He didn't ask about me as a woman wearing a kippah - he just didn't get the whole kippah thing at all. "Why does anyone wear a kippah?" he asked.

In a mix of English and Hebrew that gradually switched to all Hebrew when I realized he was Israeli and he realized I could speak Hebrew, I told him the history of the kippah. But mainly I told him why I wear one - for Yir'at Shamayim (awe/respect of the Creator) and Anava (humility). It reminds me that I am not the be-all and end-all of the universe. If I get too pumped up or proud of myself or lost in my own Arlene-ian world, all I have to do is remember this kippah on my head and what it stands for and I am firmly grounded once again. He thanked me, said he finally gets it, and we talked a bit more. We then introduced ourselves, wished each other an "erev tov" (a good night) and headed our separate ways.

And I was smiling again. Baruch Hashem.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Off to Bethlehem

Am off to Bethlehem for about 36 hours - Thursday 8 am-ish til 3pm - exactly 1 hour before Shabbat begins. Will be meeting Palestinians - adults and kids - and learning about their lives. Will receive home hospitality as well. Am bringing two different kinds of cookies from an amazing local French bakery as a hospitality gift. Is there any better way to create commonalities or breach differences than with food?

The group I am traveling with is called Encounter. It's goal: Encounter is an educational organization dedicated to providing Jewish Diaspora leaders from across the religious and political spectrum with exposure to Palestinian life. 

 Check it out; it's worthwhile.

Shabbat Shalom!

PS: Don't tell my Mom! Am waiting until after I get back. 

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Conservative Yeshiva

The Fuchsberg Center at the corner of Agron and King George streets in the center of Jerusalem.
The Conservative Yeshiva (CY) building is part of a complex that contains a beit midrash (two actually, an old one oand a newer one) and a guest house. Classes are offered year round both in person and on line.

This past summer I participated in the second summer session of learning. For three weeks I studied Talmud, Halacha, Psalms and misc other "stuff" with people of all ages from all over the world. My Talmud chevruta was from Oslo, Norway. Lynn was a wonderful chevruta. She is also studying to be a rabbi but through the Aleph program. We both desired to study the text slowly and systematically so that we could later teach what we learned. Our different skill sets were complementary. Between studying with Lynn and learning in class from Reb Mordecai I learned an incredible amount of Talmud in 3 weeks.

The laws regarding head covering from women occupied another portion of each day. In Advanced Halacha with Reb Shlomo we learned the halacha of "kisui rosh" in a chronological fashion. We began by looking at the verses from which the Rabbis derived the law in Bamidbar, the book of Numbers and worked our up to more modern times. Someday I will write about these particular studies and how I ultimately chose to cover my head with something other than my customary kippah while in Israel. However, as the laws are derived from the portion of the Torah that deals with the Sotah, the suspected adulterous wife, I am choosing not to discuss it at the moment. I get very angry/annoyed when I think about it. Enough of that for now.

My final regular course this summer was Psalms with Rabbi Gail Diamond (an RRC grad and Assistant Director of CY),  an excellent class that looks at Psalms as sacred text, prayer, praise and literature all at the same time. This class was also interesting because the students encompassed a wide spectrum of levels of comfort/fluency with Hebrew and text. The summer also included a variety of co-curricular programs and lots of informal schmoozing. As  a recipient of a Legacy Heritage scholarship. I also participated in a additional get togethers that focussed on the needs and skill sets of Jewish communal leaders. It was helpful getting to know others that were as committed to their communities as I am to mine and to have the opportunity to share ideas and programs.

I am currently in the last 6 weeks or so of my studies in Israel. I've mentioned in other posts about the craziness of my schedule and the variety of institutions in which I study (CY, Machon Schechter, Nava Tehilla, Melitz...). I spend the majority of my time at CY and am grateful for having a base of operations where I feel so comfortable and the people are so warm and caring. I'll close with some pictures of CY experiences - some were taken from the CY summer website.
Shabbat Shalom.

Tisha B'Av at the "egal" part of the Wall  (pic courtesy of CY)
A Tu B'Av Kumsitz lead by the incomparable Mark Novak (pic courtesy of CY)
The view outside the Beit Midrash at CY

Thursday, October 29, 2009

It's Raining in Jerusalem!! (and eruvs)

תודה רבה! Thank you to all of you who took seriously my request to send rain to Jerusalem. It's quarter to eight on a Thursday evening and there is a lovely, steady drizzle outside. The air is cool (only around 70 F but feels much cooler), people are carrying umbrellas, the sidewalks and streets are sparkling, the leaves have little droplets on them ... okay, so I am waxing on a bit much, but my sinuses are just so happy that it's raining! We allergy sufferers have been pretty miserable lately. Of course, that's not why I wanted it to rain - you know, all those crops and little things like drinking water - but the cleared air is a blessing. It's supposed to rain all through Shabbos - fairly heavy rain too.

So the question I have now is, can one carry an umbrella within the Jerusalem eruv on Shabbat? 

There are plenty of people who tell me that one can, however I distinctly remember learning that once cannot carry an umbrella on Shabbat. In fact, I remember arguing with my mom (the Great Nana Harri) about this when I was in high school. I would walk to shul in the pouring rain without an umbrella b/c it was forbiden to carry one on Shabbos.  I'd be dressed in a raincoat and rain hat and make pretend that these things would actually keep me dry on my mile plus walk to shul. Oh well.

Back to umbrella facts: One cannot carry an umbrella on Shabbat, even in an eruv, because (and here I quote Chabad b/c they are so much more into this than I): "Opening or closing an umbrella is akin to assembling or dismantling a tent—an act forbidden on Shabbat." (for more info on eruvim go to I'll keep an eye out this Shabbos and let you know what I see.

What is a good reconservadox gal like me doing worrying about an eruv? Good question. It's just that living in Jerusalem makes me think about these things;  Shabbat observance is so much easier here than when living in America. For example, at home I live within an eruv that is maintained by an orthodox day school about 1/2 mile from my house. However, the eruv only covers 1/2 the distance to my Conservative shul, so theoretically I could carry my tallis and siddur halfway to shul, leave them at the edge of Rock Creek Park, and then head on to shul without them. I could then retrieve them on my way home for Shabbos lunch and schluff. Not a very effective way of managing one's Sabbath.

Ranted enough this evening, am going to enjoy the rain (which is getting a bit heavier) and see if Yerushalmis know how to drive in the rain. As a former transportation specialist, I know for a fact that too many people do not know how to drive in the rain which usually results in them slowing to a crawl and causing traffic jams (פקקים or P'kakim in hebrew).  Strangely enough, here the drivers just seem to speed up! 

Keep dry!

Next time:  The Conservative Yeshiva (, where I spend the majority of my time.

Friday, October 23, 2009

I'm Back in Israel...

So I discovered with a blog that once you begin one, and people actually read it, it's good etiquette to keep it updated. I've been away from the computer for a while, my apologies, but I figured I'd take time this pre-Shabbat afternoon to catch up a bit. It's beautiful here in Jerusalem - sunny, warm, 81 degrees F when it should be cooler and, Gd Willing, rainy. We had an incredible heat spell for a week, one day or so of truly cool weather and now we are back to beautiful, uninterrupted sun. What happened to our prayers for rain on Shemini Atzeret? I hear they were answered by tons of rain and some snow in New England. Well, that's nice - but please send all that moisture our way.

I was in the States for the High Holidays. It was lovely being home after being away for nearly 3 months - so good to see my husband and kids and all the extended friends and family. But it was a bit strange too. I tend to totally absorb myself in the culture of where ever I am at the moment. Makes transitions difficult but truly enhances my day to day experience. So here in Israel I'm used to walking most places and taking cabs others with the occasional bus ride thrown in for good measure; I grocery shop  every other day because I can't fit as much in my backpack or in our shopping cart thingie as I can in my car trunk. It also turns into an adventure nearly every time I shop, don't know who I'll end up in conversation with, what arguments I'll witness, or what crazy whims of human nature will be on exhibit. People are either rushing or strolling and are always on their cell phones - even the babies in the carriages. Okay, so maybe I exaggerate a bit, but not much.  And somehow you are always running into people that you know, either from current day Israel or the States, or from 20 years ago.

What I found Stateside is that I drove most places, hardly ever walked and no cabs or buses.  I went to the grocery store once or twice and bought LOTS of stuff so I wouldn't have to go back again anytime soon. There were rarely ever any displays of interesting human behavior in the shops,  we Americans are so polite! I still saw people I knew when I went out but not nearly as often. People went places with a purpose - those who walked were generally kids going to and from school or people of other ages "taking exercise." The kids had the cell phones, the people taking exercise had iPods. The biggest difference of course was that everyone was speaking English instead of only half the people speaking English and the rest speaking Hebrew.

I've been back two weeks now and except for being sick for a while have gotten back into the swing of living in the center of Jerusalem. I am taking a gizzilion courses in order to take advantage of every possible Jerusalem opportunity. These include Talmud (Baba Kama), Kabbalah (mainly Zohar), Parahanut (Joseph Stories so far), Women in Halacha (always a hoot!), Hassidism, a study of the prayer Ana BeKoach, a bissle of Theology, some background and modern day stuff on Conservative Judaism and a few other things. Will also be engaging in weekly dialogue with students from other Rabbinical schools and will be visiting a Palestinian community next month. These classes take place in addition to just hanging out in Jerusalem, going to concerts (Idan Raichel this Sunday, yea!) and lecture series. Thank GD for Shabbat!

I'll sign off with a few observations from the High Holidays:
--Based on my interactions with the 3rd-7th graders at Tikvat Israel Congregation in Rockville, MD (, the future of American Judaism is on much sounder footing than all those who are sounding the doom and death of American Judaism think.  I witnessed a wonderful conversation on what the day the dinosaurs were created that involved the concepts of metaphor and Biblical vs Real time and does Gd have a human form or what.... It was amazing.
-- They also wanted to know what the relationship is between Teshuva and sports like football, soccer, boxing etc., where you inevitably and sometimes on purpose hurt people.
--My Rabbi ended his 2nd day Rosh Hashanah schmooze asking everyone to sing with him: "slow down, you move too fast.... Feeling Groovy." A good message I thought to begin the new year with.  (BTW, I learned that the difference between a shmooze and a dvar is about 10 minutes).
--After so many years working on the Hihos, it was very hard to just be a "Jew in the Pew." But it was nice not to have to write a Yom Kippur sermon.

Sukkot was a great break from the solemnity of RH and YK. Had lots of guests both for dinner and an open house. I'll close with some pics of our Sukkah.
Shabbat Shalom u'M'vorach - (Shabbat blessings)

Friday, September 18, 2009

Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tova!

Yesterday as I was flying from Tel Aviv to Philadelphia I saw the most amazing sight out the window. A moment before the sky had been dark. Then all of a sudden, the tiniest bit of light peaked through the clouds. As I watched, the light grew brighter and brighter and gradually encompassed not only all the clouds but also pierced though to the land below. It was a dazzling sight. And it reminded me of why I was flying home from Israel on this visit - for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. To feel and experience Gd's presence on earth, in all of us, in a very immediate and personal way. The sun peaked through the clouds and then slowly slowly filled the heavens and the earth with its radiance, just as the Spirit of the Shechina is present in the universe and in all of us and slowly slowly makes herself seen/heard/felt in our lives. 

May we all blessed in this new year of 5770 with love, happiness, health, parnassa, and all that is good and important. May the world we live in also experience a bright new year filled with peace - lots and lots of peace.  Amen. 

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Travel Log: Tzfat

     Visited Tzfat with same friend with whom I went to Haifa. What a gorgeous place Tzfat is - the views, the artwork, the shops, the views and more views..... We entered Tzfat in a round about way that enabled us (sort of unexpectedly) to see the streets, homes and back alleys of the city. And the steps! So many steps as the city is on a hill - as is Haifa.  One needs good strong legs to live in Tzfat. 
     Turns out I was right by the doorway that led into the apartment my daughter lived in when she did a modified version of Livnot U'Lehibanot: To build and be built, a wonderful program that does community service and other types of things. Check it out at Also went to the wonderful Tzfat Candle Factory - I am addicted to their stuff.
Picture 1:  Signs to center of Tzfat. So much to choose from!
Picture 2:  View from the restaurant where we ate lunch.
Picture 3:  Some history: Metzuda - The Citadel. The highest point in Tzfat. During Second Temple times was used to light the bonfires that announced the Rosh Chodesh - the new month - was beginning. Stragetic military position as well.
Metzuda (Citadel)
Picture 4:  An example of just one of the amazing pieces of sculptures that one sees all over Tzfat.

Travel Log: Haifa

Visited Haifa with a friend I hadn't seen since High School. While there, we had dinner with another friend whom I hadn't seen since University.
Eze kef! (What fun!)
Picture 1: Cafe Ha-Fuch - literally upside down coffee, 
not so literally, latte (I think). My current favorite drink of choice. Almost always ordered Natul (decaf). 
Picture 2:  A strange government building in Haifa. Pretty cool. 
Picture 3: The boardwalk in Haifa, near the Hof HaCarmel bus/train station.
Picture 4: The waves! Picture sipping the Cafe Hafuch, watching the waves....

Monday, August 31, 2009

Worship G-d with ... Horns! Psalm 150: 3

While I love being here in Israel - the atmosphere, the quiet of Shabbat, the profusion of funny shaped and colored and textured head coverings for both genders - there is one thing that really bugs me (or at least just one thing that I will kvetch about at the moment).  Israelis - at least Yerushalmis - have a really irritating habit of sounding their car horns whenever, wherever possible for as long as possible and - & this is the important part - for as little reason as possible. Why wait patiently and quietly for a red light to turn (yellow then) green when you can honk on your horn in the mistaken apprehension that the רמזור  or traffic light will actually hear you and change color more quickly? Or... that the people in the cars in front of you will decide to stop honking their horns and pay attention to yours and drive right through the red light? This technique is especially useful at, say, 1, 2 or even 3 in the morning when everyone else in their right mind is in bed and you are cruising around downtown J'slem with your music blasting and your horn tooting away at lights.
Okay, I'm grousing... and I could go on for pages but I think you get my drift. I've been kept awake for too many nights here by these horns to allow myself to totally unload my frustration on you,  my poor unsuspecting reader.  However,  I do have to mention one more instance of horn blowing which might actually be my favorite.  It's when the drivers in the cars start sending coded messages to each other with their beeps (btw, this is occurring right outside my mirpeset - patio- as I type this. I'd include a sound bite in the blog but haven't figured out how). They beep in unison, they toot in code, they honk in harmony, and they have contests as to who can honk the loudest and the longest. 
My funny and somewhat cynical flat mate Karen recently explained that all this horn beeping and blowing is actually d'oraita - from the Torah. 
Prooftext:  Psalm 150 verse 3a, 5, 6 

ג: הַלְלוּהוּ בְּתֵקַע שׁוֹפָר
ה: הַלְלוּהוּ בְצִלְצְלֵי־שָׁמַע הַלְלוּהוּ בְּצִלְצְלֵי תְרוּעָה
  ו: כֹּל הַנְּשָׁמָה תְּהַלֵּל יָ הּ הַלְלוּיָ הּ
3a. Blast out for Yah with  piercing shofar note!...
5.   Ring out for Yah with cymbals that resound!
      Clang out for Yah with cymbals that rebound!
6.   Let every living thing Yah's praises sing, Hallelu/Yah!*
Gotta go bury my head under my pillow now....
* Translation from Kol Haneshama - the Reconstructionist Siddur

Friday, August 28, 2009

Does reality nullify truth?

I've received lots of email prompted by my post on the Temple Mount - in a very short time - asking the same question. Here I quote my very wise and spiritual good friend Janaki who also commented below. Janaki writes:

Comment part 1: "what i always come to in grappling with these questions is, does it matter whether something happened or didn't happen - whether the stories are history or fiction, doesn't the human (or Godly) Truth matter, in the end?"

         IMHO,  no, it doesn't matter whether or not something actually happened, whether the stories are history or fiction and whether Truth ultimately matters.  My feeling is that these ideas - the Akeda, Creation story, the Exodus - are part of the Jewish story, they form the core metaphor around our beliefs. Whether or not they happened historically is beside the point - to US, they DID happen. They form the Judaism that we all currently believe in or run away from - therefore they must be real. Now, does real mean the same thing as historically accurate. Not at all.
         Ever since I've been little I've understood that Gd created the universe in 6 days and rested on Shabbat. At the same time, I know that the world is billions of years old, not just 6000 plus. Does it matter? Did this dual belief challenge my אמונה  my faith, at all? No. I guess even as a kid I knew that I lived in 2 civilizations.  As an adult, I often wonder why all people can't understand that.

Comment part 2: "i find it particularly fascinating to try and hold the multitude of meanings for different peoples, Jews and Muslims and Christians, that the "holy" sites hold."
       All I can say to that is "ditto." Perhaps the ultimate time of peace for all of us will come when we will be able to respect these multiple meanings and all those that hold them.  That is my wish and my prayer as I go into this weekend which contains the Sabbath of all 3 major religions, takes place in the introspective month of Elul and holds within it the observance of Ramadan.

שבת שלום ומבורך
Shabbat Shalom from Jerusalem,

Thursday, August 27, 2009

More Pics from the Temple Mount

The Temple Mount

             Spent yesterday in the Old City. A friend and I went to the Temple Mount. Weren't sure we'd be able to enter the site, as it is the beginning of Ramadan.  While we weren't able to enter any of the Mosques on the site, we did get to walk around the grounds, enjoy the spectacular views, people watch, and appreciate the amazing craftsmanship that went into the mosaics of the Dome of the Rock.             
           There are signs up as one approaches the ramp up to the Temple Mount that say it is a violation of Torah Law for a Jew to enter the Temple Mount. It also says that the Conservative Movement finds that it is allowable. If you are interested, here is a link to an English summary of the Conservative Movement’s Responsum on Entering the Temple Mount In Our Time:
            The following is an excerpt from one of the responsum, this one written by Rabbi Reuven Hammer:  "How do we fulfill this commandment of revering the Sanctuary? A visit to the Temple Mount should not be just a sightseeing experience, but a pilgrimage to the place where the Temple stood. One has to behave there in a very respectful way, be dressed properly, and a Jew should not enter the area of the Holy of Holies (i.e. inside the Dome of the Rock), where only the High Priest was allowed. Moreover, one has to remember that in the days of the Temple, not only ritual purity was required to enter the Temple Mount but also moral purity. Therefore, one should read a Psalm, such as Psalm 15, upon entering the Temple Mount."
            As I did not read this before entering the Temple Mount, I did not read a Psalm when I was there. In truth, I don’t know if I would have read a Psalm even if I had read it before I went as I am not that into Psalms as links to occasions. In any event, I was dressed respectfully and did behave in a respectful manner. I was also awed by standing on this piece of ground that means so many different things to so many different people.
            On one hand you could say “oh, this is just another Israel experience,” but on the other hand you really can’t say that because for some reason the Temple Mount is different.  Suppose the Akeda (the Binding of Isaac for the Jews and of Ishmael for the Muslims) really did happen and really did happen there? Was this actually the place of the Holy of Holies? And if it is the location of the this most holy of places – what does that mean to me as a 21st century Jewish woman who vacillates between being liberal and traditional and who is going to become a Reconstructionist Rabbi? All good questions to which I am not prepared to offer answers to at this time.
            What I can say is that there is something special about the atmosphere of the Temple Mount; this despite all the political play that is carried on about it. It is almost as if it stands outside the known and accepted space-time continuum and exists in a reality all its own. The air is still, the views are spectacular, colors seem more vibrant, one can sit and think and pray and of course, people watch.  I feel this way about some other locations in Israel as well. But this one seems different. Wish I knew why.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Woke up way too early this morning to a strange noise. After a moment I realized it was a shofar. Makes sense, as the shofar is blown every morning during the month of Elul to help us prepare for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Or perhaps it’s to help the One Upstairs prep? Who knows? As there is a little shteibl shul in the basement of my Jerusalem apartment building I assume I will be waking up to the shofar every morning. A bit earlier than I’m used to rising but perhaps that’s not a bad things.

I’ve been promising to write a blog – this is as good a time as any to start. The last month of the Jewish year, the last week of summer… seems like a promising time to begin something new. This is also the time of the Jewish year when we assess our old habits and patterns and determine which to keep, which to “reconstruct” and which to toss out completely. Oversleeping is definitely a habit that bears tossing, evaluating one’s life is a habit to cultivate. Habits to reconstruct… I’ll talk about that in another post.

Haven’t done a great job of letting people know what I’ve been up to here in the Holy Land. So here is a brief summary of my time thus far. I arrived on July 17th and since then:

~ I’ve settled in to this amazing apartment that’s at the junction of Mercaz ha’eyr (city center), Rechavia and Nachalot.

~ I’ve also become an unwilling cohabitant with a million little ants that are all over Jerusalem and just LOVE our apartment. Ants, in Hebrew, are called n’ma’lim in case you were wondering.

~ I’ve spent time learning amazing and some not so amazing things in Talmud (laws of mourning and somehow their relationship to who can shave on Chol Hamoed – don’t ask), Halacha (kisui rosh a.k.a. why does a married woman cover her head – again don’t ask) and Torah (daily Hallel – that you can ask about);

~ I’ve explored the streets of Jerusalem;

~ I’ve made friends with people from all over the world and even with one or two Greater Washington folks that I had to go all the way to Jerusalem to meet!

~ I spent an evening with a good friend and teacher as she met with a group of secular Israelis and planned to open a Beit Midrash to enhance their knowledge and embrace of Jewish tradition and learning.

~ I listened to the aching lament of Eicha (Lamentations) while sitting amongst the ruins of the Temple by Robinson’s Arch (also known as the Conservative or Egalitarian part of the Wall).

~ I spent a Shabbos with a friend that I hadn’t seen in nearly 25 years and tried to explain to one of the daughters in this observant family what it means to be a Reconstructionist and to envision a Judaism where Halacha is followed by choice and not obligation.

My favorite time is Shabbos. Shabbos in Jerusalem – stillness, quiet, no (or very few) cars, smiling people, the sound of prayer and song in the air, walks, naps, food – lots of food, visiting with friends. It’s special. Shabbos is special everywhere but here… it’s truly something else.

I spend Friday mornings at Machane Yehuda (the open air market or shuk in Jerusalem) shopping for Shabbos and Friday afternoons rushing around to get everything done in time (or napping... depends on the weekJ). I listen for the siren that tells us that Shabbos is about to start, light my candles with my housemates Amy and Karen and then walk to this hippie Carlebach-y type shul for Kabbalat Shabbat. Dinner isn’t until 9ish and most weeks finds guests at our dining room table.

I’ve been going to a different shul each Shabbos to sample the various flavors of davenning, liturgy and spirituality. The afternoon is rounded out with my Shabbos nap, of course, and schmoozing with friends until Havdalah. Then it’s time to watch Jerusalem awaken from its Shabbos slumber as the shops and restaurants open and the weekend takes shape. You’d never know from the late Saturday nights that most people are up early Sunday morning to begin another week of work or school.

So that’s my life so far in Israel. I will try to write regularly - sharing thoughts, excerpts from whatever I’m reading or writing at the moment, pictures I’ve taken, whatever comes to mind. One thing I won’t be discussing is politics – but I have a sneaking suspicion that religion will be discussed on a regular basis.

To end this first post I will append a copy of the dvar that I gave at shul the Shabbos before I left home. Those who know me won’t be surprised at the topic – journeys, Torah, the future of Judaism, and my favorite figure in Midrash, Serach bat Asher. Oh, and if you happen to have been in my Parshanut class last semester you will likely recognize the bulk of this talk.

Chodesh Tov.

And a question….Is a blog still a blog if no one reads it? Write me – I’d love to hear from anyone who wants to share thoughts.

Kol Tuv –


Dvar Torah for Parashat Pinchas, 11 July 2009

This week’s parasha, Pinchas, is, as all of our parashat just chock full of interesting… well… stuff. There’s

>a census for the mathematically inclined;

>women’s rights issues regarding inheritance for the feminists and/or lawyers among us;

>some good old fashioned romance and blood and guts when Pinchas runs through a pair of lovers with a sword (okay, so maybe that happened last week, but it's a good story); and

>we have politics as Moses lays hands on his successor Joshua.

>then, to calm things down a bit, we end with a detailed and lovely recounting of the sacrifices to be given on regular days, holy days and all those lovely times in between.

>And (last one)… in case we forget any of this sacrificial detail, we get to reread these parts on the various holidays as well during the Torah services.

One of the reasons I enjoy learning Torah so much is that I always (or almost always) find something new or interesting in it. So… I leave all the aforementioned fascinating topics for you to peruse at your leisure and in honor of this week’s Parasha, and my upcoming journey to Israel, I’d like to introduce you to someone from the Torah who just happens to be mentioned in this week’s Parasha (Chapter 26:46) and who has, over the years, become a good friend of mine.

Her name is Serach bat Asher, the granddaughter of our forefather Jacob. I became intrigued with Serach when I was fairly young, well, I guess obsessed would be a more accurate word, when I realized that the Rabbis had capitalized on this woman who was mentioned only twice in the whole Torah and decided to make her the center of a rash of midrashim. Not only that, but they made her a heroine. How cool is that? But who exactly was Serach bat Asher? Why was she mentioned at all?

Let’s look at the verses in which Serach is mentioned. Her first appearance is in Genesis Chapter 46 where there is a nearly column long listing of the original Israelites who went down to Egypt. Verse 17 states: “And the sons of Asher; Yimnah, and Ishvah, and Ishvi, and Beriah, and Serah their sister…” Serach is the ONLY woman listed here by name who is counted among the original 70 Israelites who went down to Egypt – neither Jacob’s wives nor his daughter Dinah are counted in this census. Given the fact that the Torah is not very liberal in its mention of women, especially in genealogies, why is Serach listed here?

We meet Serach for a second and final time in Torah in the Book of Numbers, shortly after the Exodus has taken place, as part of a census of those who came out of Egypt – which, according to the Rabbis occurs approximately 400 years after the Israelites first arrived in Egypt. Numbers, Chapter 26 contains a detailed listing of families who leave and who are to inherit land in Israel. In the middle of this list is the verse: “From the sons of Asher according to their families; from Jimnah, the family of the Jimnites; from Ishvi, the family of the Ishvites; … and so on. We then encounter, two verses later, a short sentence set off by itself: “And the name of the daughter of Asher was Serach.” (26:46) Again, why is she the only woman in the list? But more importantly, how is she still alive after 4 centuries? Yes, you heard correctly – how is she still alive after nearly 400 years?

In an attempt to answer these questions, I want to share with you the comments of Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, more familiarly known as Nachmanides or the RambaN. RambaN was a 13th century Spanish philosopher, Torah scholar, Kabbalist, Jewish leader – as well as a physician. His comments on the Torah are thoughtful; he seeks to find the deeper meaning of the texts, often using the paradigm of the 4 levels of Pardes that go from the Peshat or simple explanation, to the Sod, or the secret meaning.

What does RambaN think of Serach? He begins by explaining that the reason Serach is listed here in the census in Numbers is because, well, because she is still alive after all this time! And, as she is still alive and because she is one of the original 70 who went down to Egypt – then she has the status to be counted in the census and also to inherit in the land of Israel.

The situation presented, in which Serach inherits land, runs counter to the general practice in Israelite society at that time where only male offspring were the inheritors. In the next chapter in Numbers we are presented with the Daughters of Zelophechad who set the precedent of daughters inheriting when a man dies with no male offspring. RambaN makes a case that this precedent applies to Serach by referring to the use of language. The verse in Genesis lists the names of Asher’s sons and ends abruptly with “and Serach their sister.”

Why Serach their sister and not simply Serach Asher’s daughter? According to RambaN, Serach’s primary relationship is with Asher’s sons, not with Asher. Serach is in fact Half sister to Asher’s sons – in other words, Asher’s stepdaughter. The story goes that this is a second marriage for Asher’s wife - that Serach is in actuality the daughter of the wife’s first husband, a man who died without male issue. Therefore Serach, as his only child, stands to inherit his portion in the Land of Israel. If she were truly Asher’s daughter, it would be impossible for her to inherit because Asher had sons. I must admit here that while there are other commentators that discuss this idea of a first husband for Asher’s wife, I haven’t been able to figure out where the idea originates. But I’m working on that and I’ll let you know what I find.

We’ve seen that few details are given in relation to Serach. The Etz Hayyim Chumash notes that the mention of a person in this manner, with no other information given, implies that he or she was once a well-known personage (Etz hayyim, note on Gen 4:22).

RambaN appears to agree with this and finds inspiration in the formatting of the verses in Numbers. There we encounter an extensive listing of names in the format of “From the sons of So and So according to their families: from Ploni, the family of the Ploni-ites and so on. Serach shows up somewhere near the end of list , in her own verse, as “And the name of the daughter of Asher was Serach.” Her reference does not follow the format of all the rest.

RambaN reasons that according to the peshat, or simple meaning of text, Serach had a large family that was known by her name and should be among the families of the sons of Asher who would inherit. However Scripture did not want to trace the family’s ancestry back to a woman and therefore did not want to say “from Serach, the family of the Serachites” – so they truncated the matter by listing her as “And the name of the daughter of Asher was Serach.” And left it at that.

I began by explaining that I wanted to introduce you to a good friend of mine, Serach bat Asher. Like all people who like a good mystery I was fascinated early on by this woman who was mentioned only twice in the Torah – with centuries elapsing between the mentions. And like all 21st century women for whom multiple roles and multi-tasking are second nature, I became intrigued by the various roles that Serach played and the story lines that were given to her by the Rabbis.

I became intrigued -

With Serach the mystery: one who is mentioned only twice in the Torah and both times only in relation to her male relatives;

With Serach the woman: one of the gender that is rarely mentioned in the Torah without a good story line and certainly not as part of an official census;

With Serach who lived forever: Midrash looks at the verses about Serach and decides that Serach was blessed with eternal life. She is one of the few who enter Paradise alive – instead of having to die first!

And lastly, With Serach the heroine: the star of nearly a dozen Midrashic tales spun by the rabbis to answer such questions as who told Jacob that Joseph was still alive and who showed Moses where Joseph’s bones were.

Let me share my favorite midrash with you:

From the teachers seat R. Johanan sought to explain just how the waters of the Red Sea become a wall for Israel [Exodus 14:22]. Even as R. Johanan was explaining that the wall of water looked like a lattice, Serach, daughter of Asher, looked down and said: I was there. The waters rising up like a wall for Israel were shining because the radiance [of such personages as Moses and Aaron, who had drunk deep of Torah’s waters], made the waters shine. (Source: Pesikta de-Rab Kahana, a 5th/6th century book of aggadic midrash)

Here we find a woman who, in the 3rd century, was already a feminist and set the Rabbis straight on what the walls of water looked like as the Israelites crossed the Sea of Reeds – because she was there! This is heady stuff!

In 3 days I head off to Israel to learn for 6 months as part of my Rabbinical studies (tho I will be home briefly during the chagim). While I readily admit I’m a bit apprehensive about leaving my family for so long a period, I also feel amazingly privileged to be able to go and study sacred text in the holy land of Israel, in that holiest of cities, Jerusalem.

I’ve been thinking a lot these past few years about the role that Torah plays in our lives. The Rabbis saw the Torah as their guidebook and through study, interpretation and story attempted to understand and incorporate it into their daily lives. Serach provides a wonderful example of the various ways the Rabbis dealt with what they found –or did not find - in the Torah. And RambaN, himself a man of multiple roles, illustrates how a seemingly innocuous detail, like the format of a list, can exercise our imagination.

We, today, hold the Torah as an ancient document whose lessons and stories provide us with guidelines for living an ethical and godly life. Our responsibility, as modern Jews, is to keep the Torah relevant in whatever way seems most meaningful to each of us. In that way we embody the living Torah, we continue in the tradition of writing midrash through our lives. One of my goals is to continue to write about Serach, in both English and Hebrew. I’ve been doing a considerable amount of research about her and the midrashim written about her. The end result will be a modern midrash about Serach that I’ve just started to write. I’m fascinated by this concept that there could be someone who has witnessed the evolution of Judaism and Jewish practice. Imagine being able to see what makes Judaism relevant to different people at different points throughout history. That’s why I’ve been studying these past 3 years and will continue to study for 3 more years to become a rabbi – in order to better understand what people are seeking in Judaism and spirituality and to figure out how to help them find it.

There is the well-known midrash that all Jewish souls, including those that are not born Jewish but convert to Judaism, were at Sinai for revelation – the receiving of the Torah. And if we believe what the Torah states and what the RambaN explains – then Serach – our Serach in all her multiple roles– was there too. And she might be here among us today.

Shabbat Shalom.