Wednesday, June 25, 2014

My Complete Lovely Day

Hello from the Conservative Yeshiva (CY) in Jerusalem!

My intention had been to write a daily blog about my learning and teaching at the CY during my 6 weeks here - but classes started on Sunday and this is my first post. Something about this visit seems different than my previous visits but I don't know what it is.

I've been in J'slem a week now and have yet to wander about the city or go to the Old City/Western Wall at night. That's very unusual for me.  Also, the Yeshiva feels different to me - or perhaps it's that I've been feeling different at the Yeshiva. It might be because it's my first time there as a proper rabbi - whatever that is.   But also, I had really looked forward to doing my favorite thing - learning in the Beit Midrash and until today, my learning has been very flat.  Even my daily writing has been flat. But today that all changed.

Today was a near perfect day. I woke early and was at the Yeshiva before 7. I was able to spend a good 20 minutes meditating in the sunshine before anyone else arrived. This was very important for me as I teach a Learner's Minyan* (LM) each morning so I only get to daven 3 out of the 5 days of classes. I LOVE teaching the LM but I didn't realize how much I'd miss the structure that actualizing my daily personal spiritual practice provides me. The meditating this morning grounded me and I will continue to do it from now on.

*(Learner's Minyan - a class teaching the hows and whys and structure of daily prayer)

It's interesting - in the LM I made a point of telling the students in LM that our studying together each morning - with the occasional chant and prayer - is a form of prayer. And I stand by that. We are gathering together as an intentional community to study and learn liturgy and to learn/practice ways to increase our connection to the Awesome One. That is prayer. But even though I am totally energized by teaching this class of wonderful, thoughtful, interested people, my daily spiritual needs are not being met. So now they will be with the meditation. Thus the wonderful day began.

My intention is to spend the mornings writing - high holiday sermons, other divrei torah, curriculum, etc. To date I have not gotten very far. Today I was researching a dvar torah on parashat Balak and had an incredibly productive morning. Amazing how much there is to learn about Balaam's ass!

Afternoon learning was a class called "Shema, Tefilla and Bracha" taught by my friend and favorite teacher Rabbi Joel Levy, the Director of the CY.  A class with such a title has great promise as it focusses on my favorite topics (how egocentric I am!).  In this class we are looking at how the rabbis tried to create an infrastructure for spirituality and Jewish identity in order to sustain Jewish life in the diaspora.

In the first two classes we studied the mishna on the Shema and the parameters of when one is allowed to say the evening and morning Shema.

The message of this chapter, according to Rabbi Joel, is to provide a look at how the rhythms of our life are reflected through text and liturgy. The rhythms of our life are the rhythms of the Jewish people - and the story being told is how our individual stories and rhythms interweave with the rhythms of our people.

It reminds me of one of my favorite concepts - the idea of being one in a minyan. (I've written about this before).  Exercising the status and obligation of being one of ten people in a minyan is a powerful action. One makes a statement of belonging, believing and of peoplehood. One also is meshing or interweaving one's individual story and rhythm with the rhythm of our people. To participate in a minyan is to an individual that is part of group but also to be part of a group that is made up of individuals.  It proves that there is a way to be a member of a group, to be obligated and to fulfill that obligation without giving up one's individuality. For it is that very individuality that enables the group to exist and act on its purpose.

What does this have to do with the Shema class? Everything and a bit of nothing. But the point is the class got me thinking, B"H. And I'm pleased. My inner nerd is ecstatic. My inner yeshiva girl is dancing about and grinning widely.

I finished my day at the yeshiva doing more research on Balaam. Did you know that midrash has it that he buggered his ass b/c his affection for her was as if she were his wife? Scary, right?

Evening was spent getting a massage and then finishing the day with a group meditation session. The day was well rounded; I was grounded and centered; I got to teach; I was blessed with interesting learning both on my own and with a fantastic teacher. And I walked around Jerusalem a bit in the dark - one of my favorite activities.

Truly a complete and lovely day!

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Tel Aviv

The Diaghilev, LIVE ART Boutique Hotel 

This is where I stayed in Tel Aviv. On Mazeh street. Great name, right? Mazeh means "what's this" in Hebrew! 
The hotel was lovely - artsy, spacious, clean, the people working there were friendly and helpful. 

A few more pics of Tel Aviv before I leave for Jerusalem:

Modern and tropical.  Beautiful. Also went to the beach and saw a lovely sunset and had dinner by the water. 
Tel Aviv coast

But there is a grittier side to Tel Aviv too, filled with the reality of urban living. 

 These pictures are two views of the Tent City that remains in Tel Aviv, leftover from the 2011 Israeli social justice protest which, according to Wikipedia, "are a series of ongoing demonstrations in Israel beginning in July 2011 involving hundreds of thousands of protesters from a variety of socio-economic and religious backgrounds opposing the continuing rise in the cost of living (particularly housing) and the deterioration of public services such as health and education. A common rallying cry at the demonstrations was the chant; "The people demand social justice!"."

There were still people in those tents as I passed. 

Beit Hatfutsot - Diaspora Museum (Wednesday last)

Spent an afternoon at Beit Hatfusot - the Diaspora Museum.  It had been nearly 30 years since I had last been there; as one can imagine, many changes had taken place.

My favorite area was still there, The Gate of Faith section with 18 miniature synagogue reproductions from around the world. Included were two synagogues I was familiar with - Beth Shalom Synagogue in PA designed by Franklin Lloyd Wright and Touro Synagogue in Newport, RI. 

I have fond memories of visiting Touro Synagogue back in 8th grade with Mrs. Twersky z"l Hebrew Day School. We were on a day long field trip to Newport and were only allowed to speak hebrew while we were there. What fun that was! She was an amazing teacher.

Also saw interesting films about the role of Jews in paintings and religious art as well as a general timeline of the cultural history of the Jews. 

Beit Hatfutsot - Diaspora Museum on the Campus of Tel Aviv University
The "enduring understanding" of the museum



Tuesday, June 17, 2014

On my way to the Promised Land... with a stopover at Heathrow

So the day has finally arrived. My good friend Kate and I packed our bags (me with 3 times as many bags as she, as usual) and my dear husband drove us to the airport. Flying on British Airways - so far so good. 

Watched two movies. Frozen, in order to see what all the fuss was about. I fast forwarded through most of it but did enjoy the ice and snow graphics and the happy ending. 

I also watched Saving Mr. Banks. It's the  movies about Walt Disney and Mrs. Travers, the woman who created Mary Poppins and their interesting relationship or negotiation over 20 years to turn the books into a movie. It was an interesting and touching movie, particularly at the end. Lots of "psychology" about childhoods - good and bad - and life, and making do and remaking oneself.

Saving Mr. Banks reminded me of the two different stories of the spys - the three actually - one in Shlach Lecha, another in Deuteronomy Chapter 1 (a retelling with a twist of the of the original story) and a final story in Joshua  Chapter 2 that takes place 40 years later, Joshua send spies to scout out Jericho but learns from his predecessor Moshe's mistakes and sends out only 2 spies and does so in secret. 

(to learn more about the spies, read my last post: A Question of Faith

Why do I bring up the spies in relation to a Hollywood movie? Both the stories of the spies and Saving Mr. Banks reminded me of the prayer in birchot hashachar - pokeach ivrim, where we thank God for opening the eyes of the blind.  

For those who are not blind, the prayer is a means of thanking God for allowing us to see what is not readily apparent. What is present right in front of our eyes yet we are unable or unwilling to see it. The spies were greatly in need of that prayer during their expedition that day. 

Back to Saving Mr. Banks.  How was she saved? Pokeach Ivrim. Her eyes were opened. Her memories were examined, her past revisited and reanalyzed and her present was remade as a consequence. Amazing where tefilla references will pop up! 

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Shlach Lecha: A Question of Faith

Shlach Lecha: A Question of Faith

Appeared in June 12, 2014 Washington Jewish Week
This week’s Torah portion is Shelach Lecha, Numbers 13:1-15:41.

What causes some people to have faith and others to doubt? This age old question is played out between this week’s parshaShelach Lecha, and its haftarahJoshua, Chapter 2.
Shelach Lecha begins with the tale of the 12 spies that were sent to scout out the Canaanite territory. B’nei Israel had finally reached their destination; it was time to enter and conquer the land that God had promised them. This had been their destination since leaving slavery in Egypt. But something stopped them. Fear? Second thoughts? A lack of faith in God? Perhaps it was the same condition that had plagued them since they left Egypt - the inability to rid themselves of their slave mentality and transition to the mindset of a free people.
There are two versions of the spy story. In Numbers 13 God says “Shelach Lecha: “Send forth [men] if you please…” to spy out the land. Although God is not keen on the idea of sending in spies, permission is granted, albeit in language that indicates the decision is in fact in Moshe’s hands. Moshe recounts a different version of the story in Deuteronomy 1:22. Here Moshe removes the decision from himself and puts the onus on B’nei Israel. Both cases deal with a crisis of faith.

The God of the Israelites is omniscient and omnipotent and the guardian of the Israelite people. Why would the Almighty have invested such time and energy saving and shepherding His chosen people just to see them slaughtered? The rabbis comment that God had already “scouted out” the land and found it to be suitable.  Moshe and the people should have known this.

This week’s haftarahJoshua, chapter 2, tells the other spy story. Joshua is now leader and sends two spies out into Jericho with the same mission as the original 12 – survey the area for conquest and make a military assessment. There they meet Rahab, a prostitute who shelters them in her home instead of turning them over to the king. When asked why she risked her life to save them she replied "I know that the Lord has given the country to you, because dread of you has fallen upon us, and all the inhabitants of the land are quaking before you. For we have heard how the Lord dried up the waters of the Sea of Reeds for you when you left Egypt, and what you did to Sichon and Og, the two Amorite kings across the Jordan, whom you doomed. When we heard about it, we lost heart, and no man had any more spirit left because of you; for the Lord your God is the only God in heaven above and on earth below.” (2:9-11)

How interesting. Rahab does the extraordinary and stands up to her king because of her faith in the God of Israel. She and “all the inhabitants of the land” have this faith not because they themselves witnessed God’s miraculous events but because they heard and believed.  The Israelite spies and B’nei Israel all witnessed  miraculous deeds yet were unable to maintain their faith.  As soon as they were challenged, their faith was challenged.

We know the endings of both stories. In Shelach Lecha, the spies return and except for Joshua and Caleb ben Jephunneh, the remaining 10 spin a hyperbolic tale claiming they will never be able to defeat those living in the land. In contrast, the two spies in Joshua return and report:  "The Lord has delivered the whole land into our power; in fact, all the inhabitants of the land are quaking before us." (Joshua 2:24). 

It boils down to a question of faith.

Questions to consider:

1. How do you define faith in your life?
2. Are you the kind of person who needs to “see it to believe it” or do you “take things on faith”? Are these positions mutually exclusive?
3. How do you think you would have behaved had you been one of the original spies? Do you think you might have been able to fight the prevailing mindset? Have you ever been in a situation that the fear or anxiety you felt overruled your common sense?