Tuesday, December 9, 2014

" Die, Just Die!" A story

I just sat and stared.
Sometimes I would sit quietly, trying to clear my mind and achieve a meditative calm. 
Other times I would be quite loud, saying or shouting: “Just stop working, just stop!” 
and there would be no answer 
so then I'd say “Die, just die! Don't you know how pleasant it will be in the world to come when you don't have to work anymore? When you don't have to do anyone else’s bidding? Just die!” 
and there would still be no answer.
There was never an answer. 

The dishwasher just sat there in its infinite yellow decrepitude and stared back at me, silently.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Chayei Sarah - The worth of one's days and one's death

The Worth of One's Days and One's Death

as printed in Washington Jewish Week 11/13/14
This week’s Torah portion is Chayei Sarah, Genesis 23:1-26:18.

A Torah parsha is named after the first words of significance found in the first sentence. In this case, Chayei Sarah or the life of Sarah, is named after a woman’s life that informs us of her death in the first sentence. Why?

We are taught that a person’s worth is calculated by the deeds accomplished in life that cause them to be remembered. When I conduct a funeral, I always remind everyone that while Judaism holds varying beliefs (and disbeliefs) about the afterlife, we give our loved ones eternal life by remembering them. Mourning, shiva, shloshim, yarzheit, Yizkor are the tools of memory. Is anything that we do influenced by a teaching or example that our loved one set for us during his or her life? Do we tell our children stories? In this way, we give them eternal life; in this way they live on forever. 

Sarah’s death is described in a way that no other woman’s death is described, her age is stated and there is a redundant phrase at the end of the sentence “these were the years of life of Sarah.” We don’t learn of the way she died, that is left to the rabbis and midrash. The deaths of other women in Torah are either stated in passing, or seemingly minimized in some way.

Commenting on this verse (Genesis 23:1) Rashi reasons that the numbers are repeated because each mention contains a message. At 100, Sarah was as still as beautiful as a 20-year-old and as blameless for sin as a 7-year-old. The phrase “the years of Sarah’s life” indicates that all of the years of her life were equally good. Aviva Zornberg in her book, Genesis: The Beginning of Desire, writes that it is important to know Sarah’s age when she died because it wasn’t until the barren Sarah gave birth to Isaac that she finally realizes “the intentionality of her life.” Other commentators also say that Sarah’s life never truly began until Isaac was born. By describing Sarah’s death in this way and adding the final phrase, the Torah is attesting to her importance as the first matriarch.

In an oblique way, the story gives eulogy to Sarah’s life. By forcing us to interpret this first sentence “And Sarah was a hundred and twenty seven years old; these were the years of the life of Sarah” we are required to take stock of the life of this woman named Sarah. Abraham mourns for Sarah, the first case we have of someone mourning in the Torah. The Hebrew word used for mourning is lispod from which we get the mitzvah of hesped, eulogizing the dead. Abraham provides us with the model for this behavior. 

In parshat Chayei Sarah we have a unique sentence that not only tells us that Sarah died but also gives us her age. It reminds us of two things: that Sarah’s life had meaning and that we are to look deeply into these verses to truly understand the ramifications of her death and her life. Her death informs all that happens next – Abraham’s search for posterity in the purchase of the Cave of Machpelah and Isaac’s marrying Rebecca in order to perpetuate the promise and the creation of the people Israel. Sarah, our first matriarch, is given eternal life as we yearly read parshat Chayei Sarah, and as we remember all that was done in her name after she died. 

Table Talk: 
There are several commentaries and midrashim about Genesis 23:1 stating Sarah’s death. I’ve listed only a few. 
Can you think of any other reasons for this unique verse?

Has someone passed away in your life whose influence on you can still be felt?

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this dvar!
Shabbat Shalom, 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

My Summer in Israel’s Matzav

This article was published in the September/October 2014 issue 
of the Tikvat Israel bulletin along with another congregant's 
reflections as part of a feature called: Our Summer Experiences in Israel

Despite this summer’s situation in Israel, for the most part, I had quite a good summer. However, usually each time I leave Israel I ache with a longing to stay. This time was different in that although I was ready to come home, I still ached. 

I ached with grief over the “matzav” – the situation  – in Israel. I ached for all the inhabitants of the land, Jew and Palestinian alike, for being caught in the impossible grip of injury, death and destruction.

I also ached from a sense of guilt for exercising my privilege of leaving a country at war and going home to safety. I felt guilt over no longer being able to show in person that I wanted to help in whatever way I could, though in truth I really didn’t know how to help except by providing the emotional support to those who ask or need and the economic support of being a tourist.

I spent the majority of my summer in Jerusalem where it was almost possible to forget at times there was a war going on … almost. Although we didn’t experience any of the day-to-day fighting, there was a sense of tension, heaviness and hyperawareness that seemed to be communally experienced. There were also pro-and anti-war rallies and riots popping up daily. I only experienced a few red alert sirens in Jerusalem and two others over a Shabbat in Tel Aviv. One quickly learned where the nearest miklat, or bomb shelter, was located relative to one’s apartment and on neighborhood streets.

Most days I spent teaching and learning at the Conservative Yeshiva. Located in the center of Jerusalem, it’s a wonderful place to study traditional text in an egalitarian setting with people from all over the world. I taught a learner’s minyan for those students (of all ages) who were uncomfortable or unfamiliar with the traditional daily shacharit service or with prayer in general. My goal, as I taught about keva (obligatory prayer) and kavanna (intentional or spontaneous prayer), was to facilitate each person’s development of their own personal prayer practice and relationship with tradition. 

While I rarely discussed the matzav in my class, I hoped that by developing an intentional prayer practice or at least a better understanding of traditional prayer, each person would be acquiring “practical spiritual skills” with which to deal with the ever-present stress.

I actually thought I was dealing with the stress fairly well. I’d lived in Israel for a year during the first war with Lebanon and had spent extended periods there during other stressful times. But, of course, the emotional and psychological toll of the matzav got to me as it did to anyone else.  Strangely enough, it wasn’t the rocket attacks that unnerved me. Rather, it took a phone conversation with my daughter to do that.

My daughter decided to spend Shabbat in Tel Aviv the first week after the war began. I wasn’t thrilled, as Tel Aviv was rapidly becoming a favorite Hamas target, but what was I to do? As we spoke during our Shabbat Shalom conversation on Friday, I found myself reviewing the procedures of what to do if she got caught away from a miklat/bomb shelter during a rocket attack – out of doors or in a car. It turns out she knew what to do and I just had to be satisfied with that. At the end of our conversation, I blessed her for Shabbat, told her that I loved her and hung up.

Shortly thereafter I found myself trembling. I had just reviewed rocket attack safety procedures with my child. I’m an American. I never expected to have to do that. But I’m also a Jew. A Jew who spends a lot of time in Israel. So why was I so surprised and unnerved? Nevertheless, I was. And to some degree, I still am after returning to Rockville.

I received many e-mails over the summer asking if I was going to come home early or if the sender, who was thinking of coming to Israel, should actually come. I never did consider coming home early and while I wanted to say to everyone, “Yes, of course, come!” I couldn’t (and didn’t) do that. One person’s sense of safety and belonging isn’t the same as the next person’s. Each must make their own choices and those choices will be the right ones for them.

There is so much we can learn by integrating our tradition with the multi-cultural complex world we live in. When Jennie and I were chevruta partners at the yeshiva in a course that traced the civilizational development of the phrase “V’Ahavta L’reacha Ka’mocha,” (love your neighbor as yourself), we applied that knowledge to current-day relationships.

Finally, it was borne out when I spoke to people -- Jews, Christians, Muslims and tourists -- about country, family, heritage and the pain and sense of helplessness that this situation was bringing to all of them.  May peace come soon and in our time.

Note: Since this article was written, a permanent cease fire has gone into effect. Let us pray that it holds. AMB

Me in front of Robinson’s Arch, the
egalitarian section of the Western Wall 
in Jerusalem. Had just finished davenning 
Shacharit (morning prayer) with the Conservative Yeshiva.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Two Version of the Fourth Commandment: to “Remember,” “Keep” Shabbat

This Dvar Torah appears in the Washington Jewish Week, August 7, 2014

In this week’s parsha, V’etchanan Moshe begins the second recitation and teaching of the Ten Commandments.  There are slight differences in the two versions of the Decalogue presented in Exodus and Deuteronomy. I want to highlight the differences between versions of the fourth commandment, to keep the Sabbath (Exodus 20:8-11 and Deuteronomy 5:12-15). 

The best known difference is found in the first line of the commandment. Exodus 20:8 states: Zachor et haShabbat l’kodsho/Remember the Sabbath to keep it holy and Deuteronomy 5:12 states: Shamor et haShabbat l’kodsho /Observe or Keep the Sabbath to keep it holy.  

Why two different words? There are many explanations but I prefer the simplest one. The first time we learn the Ten Commandments we are a newly formed people receiving the basics about how to become the Jewish people. The term zachor is a big picture term to be understood as saying “remember to observe” the Sabbath.  The term shamor/observe in our parsha reminds us that there are specific ways to observe the Sabbath and we are to remember them. Midrash says that the people heard both of these words at the exact same time. The midrash makes sense if both words contain each other’s meanings within them. 

The final difference occurs in the last lines of the commandment. In both versions we are told that the Sabbath is the seventh day and not to do any work; the difference is in who this commandment applies to and why. The people commanded to obseve the Sabbath in both verses include you, one’s son, daughter, male and female slaves, cattle and stranger within your gates.  Deut 5:14 reads:   But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work, you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male slave, nor your female slave, nor your ox, nor your ass, nor any of your cattle, nor your stranger who is inside your gates; so that your male slave and your female slave may rest as well as you.”

We find the ox and ass added to cattle as a way of reinforcing the need to be kind to animals. Tending to animals and strangers are both things that a slave should have respite from on the Sabbath. The addition in this version is clearly one that speaks to us about how to run our household and by extension our community with respect and fairness (at least according to those times). 

There is one final line in each version of the commandments – the “why” of it all. 

Exodus 20:11:  “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and made it holy.” 

Deuteronomy 5:15: “And remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and that the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and with a stretched out arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.” 

We are reminded here of the two core narratives of our people – Creation and the Exodus from Egypt. Why do we do what we do as Jews? Because God created our world and everything in it and that we are to remember that we were once slaves that that same God rescued from Egypt.  Now as the people are about to enter the Holy Land, it is fitting to remind them not only of all that God has done to help transform them from slaves to a free people ready to enter the promised land but also to teach them the specifics of how to behave as free people. 

I’ve just returned from spending the summer in Israel. Given the current state of affairs I cannot think of a better time to be reminded of where we come from and what/who we need to become.  This week’s Torah portion reminds us that knowing the right thing to do is not the same as actually doing it. It also reminds us that all people are created in God’s image and are deserving of rest, of freedom and of peace. May peace come quickly and speedily in our time. 

Table Topics:
  1. What do the differences in these commandments mean to you?
  2. Make a comparison of the rest of the commandments and see what differences you can find.  Note especially Commandments 5 and 10. 
  3.  If you were to add an Eleventh Commandment, what would it be? 

Thank you to Rabbi Daniel Goldfarb for reminding me of the differences between these two commandments in his class "Torah in Action" at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem this summer. The idea for this d'var came from that class. 

Monday, July 28, 2014

Kippah Stories

So much has happened this summer in Israel. It’s difficult to record– let alone remember it all. 

It almost feels frivolous writing about non-war related experiences, but, on the other hand, perhaps it’s important to do so. To show that life goes on regardless. 

Study, worry, play, dining out, touring, more worry, protest, listening to the news, meeting people from all sides (not both sides b/c as Jews – or perhaps just humans – we know there are never just 2 sides of any issue).  I’ve partaken in all these things this summer. As well as prayer. Oh, and shopping.

However, no Israel experience blog of mine would be complete without Kippah Stories. There are actually fewer than usual of substance this summer, but there are a few. 

Here they are: 

✡ A young religious girl at the Friday morning Jerusalem Crafts Fair on Bezalel Street doing a complete double take – turning herself completely physically around while still holding onto her mother’s hand – so that she wouldn’t lose sight of the novelty of me (or actually my kippah bedecked head).

✡ The family man with wife and small children who approached me, my daughter and our friend Rachel at the First Station in Jerusalem. We were eating dinner outdoors at a restaurant and he asked if he could take a picture of us – me and Rachel actually – because we were two women wearing kippot. I think that was Rachel’s second time that day being photographed!

✡  Then there was the “cool” (at least in his own mind) guy on the motorcycle who did an illegal U across traffic on Keren Hayesod (a main street in Jerusalem) on a late Friday afternoon to ask me if I were a rabbi because I was wearing a kippah. (Jennie and I were waiting for a taxi to take us to a friend’s for Shabbat dinner.) He ended up with one wheel on the sidewalk and one in the road in front of a car that hadn’t quite come to a stop and was about to hit him! All because he saw my kippah from across the road and felt an urgent need to question me about it! Why did the chicken cross the road? We talked for a few minutes and then he left to try to pick up a woman waiting on the next block! 

There have been quite a few other instances of quick looks, a shopkeeper asking to photograph y kippah b/c he liked the design, questions from other shop keepers that usually end with a Kol haKavod -- translated in this case mostly to “you go girl! (from women) with a few “you are off your rocker” meanings thrown in for good measure (often from kippah wearing men in their 20s). But I’ve saved the best for last.

✡  Last week I was walking down HaMelech George (King George Street) toward the Conservative Yeshiva. I was concentrating on the text message I was sending and therefore wasn’t very aware of what was going on around me. Gradually I heard voices gradually raising around/toward/behind me, in Hebrew, saying “Give me a blessing!” Finally I looked around and realized the voices were aimed at me!

There were 3 young men, probably early 20, hanging out and smoking cigarettes in front of the ice cream freezer at the local makolet (like a mini-mart or bodega).  They wore kippot and looked to be Mizrachi (Jews of Eastern descent). 

Anyway, I walked back to them and the following conversation ensued in hebrew:

Me: Are you talking to me? 
They: Yes. Give us a blessing? 
Me: Why?
They: Because you are a Rabbanit, a Rabbah. Give us a blessing.
Me: How do you know I am a Rabbah? 
They: Because you are wearing a kippah. Give us a blessing.
Me: So you saw this woman wearing a kippah and figured she had to be a rabbah and started yelling at her – me to give you a blessing. And when I didn’t hear you, you kept yelling louder and louder until I heard you. All because I was wearing a kippah. 
They: Yes. Give us a blessing. 
Me: Again, why?
They: because if you were a Rav (a male rabbi) you would give us a blessing.
Me: (at that point I gave up or in) Okay…. (thinking hard, I’d never done this off the cuff before)  “Bracha shel shalom v’osher.”
They: (the two sort of smarmy ones smile, the third quiet one stays silent) OK. Thanks.  
Me: (I start to walk away)
They: Wait a minute! 
Me: (I turn around) yes? 
They: Osher with an Aleph or an Ayin
Me:  (Ya’Allah!) hmmm  Osher with an Aleph.
They: (2 nodding, 1 silent) Okay, thanks. 
Me: (I start to walk away again)
They: Wait a minute! 
Me: (I turn around again) Yes? 
They: Maybe also with an Ayin
Me: Ok. “Bracha shel shalom v’osher im aleph V’ayin!”**
They: All 3, including the silent sad one, nod all around and give me huge smiles and sincere thanks. 

**NOTE: Osher with an Aleph means happiness; Osher with an Ayin means wealth

That was at first a puzzling exchange, but the more I thought about it, the more I decided it was in fact a lovely exchange.