I wrote a follow up article for Bechol Lashon on the influence of Ethiopia in our parenting of Eliyana:
Cross-Cultural Parenting: Materialism vs Relationship
Please click here to read it.
Nachamu Nachamu – Give Comfort, Give Comfort, to my people, says God… thus begins this Shabbat’s Haftarah from Isaiah. It is a call to the future, to a time after the destruction of our Temple and exile of our people.. a time of return, a time of healing, a time when humanity has overcome its propensity for self-destruction.
How can I call nachamu, nachamu, comfort… this Shabbat, when US troops are headed back to Iraq, when Israeli’s scurry to shelters, praying for their children at the front, when 200 young girls stolen from their classrooms in Nigeria by terrorists have yet to be returned to their families, when children die of diseases for which we have the cure, and despots drug them as use them as fodder in wars. How can I call this a Shabbat of comfort?
I look to our Torah portion this week, which contains the Shema: Hear, O Israel, Adonai our God, Adonai is One. This sentence is the focal point of Jewish liturgy and traditionally, we cover our eyes when we recite the Shema.
A story is told in the Talmud (Brachot 13b) in which Rabbi Yehuda HaNavi covers his eyes to shut out the distractions of his students as he prays. This was later codified in the Shulchan Aruch: We cover our eyes to eliminate distractions from our sight, so we can more fully concentrate on the oneness, the wholeness of God. Certainly there are enough distractions in our modern lives to make this explanation relevant today.
“The Noda Biyhudah, Rabbi Yechezkel ben Yehuda Landau, offers a second reason for covering our eyes. He teaches that it is difficult to have faith in the Holy One when we only have to look around us to see all the suffering in the world. For the Noda Biyhudah, we cover our eyes to block out the troubles of the world, to help us access our faith. Though he was writing in the 17th century, this insight applies in our own days. We look at our world, at the tragedy of the war in Israel, the economic troubles at home, the increasing anti-Semitism in Europe, and it is easy to despair. We cover our eyes and recite the Shema to remind ourselves that the world also contains Divine love, justice, and truth. We can have hope despite the tragedies we face in the world.” (Rabbi Cathy Felix, Jewish Standard)
Covering our eyes to concentrate on prayer, to be renewed in hope, is different than shutting ourselves away from the world and it’s brokenness. We are commanded to tikkun olam, to heal the world. But how can we begin the work when all we feel is despair. I am reminded of the teaching from Pirkei avot: The task is hard, the day is long… you do not have to finish the work but neither may you desist from it. The covering of our eyes in reciting the shema, is like that deep breath you take as you look at a hard long task and set yourself back to work on it. We need that moment of breath.
A different interpretation: The first line of the Shema is that “God is One.” The Talmud speaks about “lengthening” the way one says the word “One”: Echad. Why do we lengthen the word echad?
The hassidim looked to gematria: “Echad, is made up of three letters: Aleph, Chet and Daled. Aleph, which has the numerical value “one,” refers to God Himself. Chet, numerical value “eight,” signifies the seven heavens and the earth, ie: ‘up’ and ‘down’, the vertical plane, including all spiritual dimensions. The third letter is Daled, numerical value “four,” which denotes the four directions of the horizontal plane: north, south, east, west.” (Tali Lowenthal, Chabad.com)
During that time of saying echad, during that lengthening of the word, we have time to meditate, to think about the world in all its dimensions–the spiritual and the physical, and throughout the world and the entire physical universe–is really an expression of the infinite oneness of God.
This is the exact opposite of the reasoning given by Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, the we shut out the world as we pray… here we invite the world into our prayer. And what if we combined the two… what if we cover our eyes, concentrating on the divine in our world, breathing and meditating on all that is possible and letting despair give way to hope…. If we find nachamu, comfort… And what if as we recite the words, we allow the world to come in, as it is meant to be, as a place of promise, of joy, of fulfillment, and what if as we meditate on God the creator, God who gives us one life, one world, one chance…. God of oneness, and we find in that breath, in that prayer, the strength to return to the reality of the world, and work towards fulfilling that vision of Isaiah, of working towards the time of peace, of healing, of fulfilling the best of our potential.
I am troubled by the news reports that separate the victims of the Gaza Israel war into civilian and military. Why is the life of a young soldier more acceptable as a casualty of war? Why do we separate them out from the count, as though their lives, their family’s mourning is less important?
In Israel, every single young person (with some excepts) is required to serve in the army. They do not choose this path. They are no different than any other 18, 19, or 20 year old. They have family and friends who love them. They want to live. Why are their deaths counted differently?
We have come to believe that soldiers are acceptable casualties of war and therefore can happily live our lives without guilt. In the US we know that our veterans do not receive adequate medical care, that the benefits promised to them are not delivered. Do we accept this because in our minds soldiers are already “other,” already an acceptable loss? Our presidents receive a lifetime salary and physical protection. This reflect our value of them, our thanks for their service. How is our value of those who risk and lose their lives for our freedom reflected?
I deplore the harming of children in all its evil forms. There is never an acceptable reason for a child to die in violence at the hands of fellow human beings. The pictures of child casualties from the Gaza Israel war are heartbreaking. I make no excuses, I have no words of outrage at those who put that child in that position. I only cry at the horror and injustice. I cry for our world, our people, for the parents of that child, for the life that will never be. There should be rules, of war, of life, and these should begin with guarding the welfare of all our children.
There should also be rules for war and life that embrace the lives of those who are risked for our happiness. Their deaths are to be mourned. Their lives are to be treasured. Their needs should be valued and met.
Our work should be towards one of peace for all people. Separating this horrific tragedy into neat piles of “civilian” versus “military” is an insult to the preciousness of God’s creation.
My mind can not analyze to give words of comfort or wisdom. The number of rockets, the counted deaths, the political theories…
I see only the mother rushing her child to a shelter as she hears the alarm. She is singing comforting words, hoping her daughter does not see the fear in her eyes.
In another shelter sits a woman praying to God that her children are safe. They are with their father across town. She prays they are safe in the shelter there and counts the hours and minutes until they are reunited.
A toddler, a baby, is held in his mother’s arms… she prays that the bombs don’t come for them.
Another mother waits, listening carefully to the news. Her son is a soldier at the front, only 18.
Four mothers grieve for teenage sons who will never see adulthood.
And another mother mourns as her son becomes a stranger to her. She grieves what her son has become.
God give comfort to the mothers who cry out for their children. Hear their prayers. Bring them peace.
I was delighted that Rabbi Tziona asked me to write a guest blog, and while I am leaving for Israel for the summer in a couple of days for my 39th year with USY Pilgrimage, I wanted to get to this as soon as I could so it wouldn’t get lost in the shuffle.
As some of you may know, I have been involved in Tzedakah and Tikkun Olam since 1975, focusing on text, practical projects and finding and working with Mitzvah heroes.
I wanted to share with you one of the most important texts I have found. Not being a genius of Biblical and Rabbinic text, I cannot reconstruct how I found it, but I am happy I did.
The text deals with the topic of how Judaism doesn’t like to leave Mitzvahs in the high abstract, but rather looks for practical applications. A good example is the over-used and often abused quote from Leviticus l9:18 “Love others as you love yourself”. You will see below how Maimonides gives us an incredibly insightful way of figuring out how to bring this alive and into the everyday:
This is the commandment that we were commanded to love each other just as we love ourselves.
That is to say that my concern and love for other Jews should be the same as my concern and love for myself —as far as both possessions and personal needs are involved —for whatever the other person’s possessions and wishes.
Whatever I want for myself, I want the same for that other person.
And whatever I do not want for myself or my friends, I do not want for that other person.
This is the meaning of the verse, “And you shall love the other person as yourself.”(Leviticus 19:18)
Maimonides, Sefer HaMitzvot, Positive Mitzvah #206
I believe that if we ask ourselves both “what do we want for ourselves” and “what don’t we want for ourselves” we will have a good guide on how to do our Tzedakah and Tikkun Olam work.
One example I liked to use in my talks: infant car seats. If we want our own children to be safe in a car, then we want others to be safe, and therefore we should have infant car seat drives and get them to people who cannot afford to buy them.
POTENTIALLY LIFE SAVING MITZVAHS
1. Cellphones for survivors of domestic violence
2. Infant car seats
3. Rescuing leftover food to donate: www.rockandwrapitup.org,
*4. Legos, toys, puzzles and games, board games, kids’ card games, marbles, jacks, blocks, bubble blowers, jump ropes, fun stickers
5. Videos and DVD’s (kid and adult) for hospitals
*6. soaps, shampoos, hand lotion, other toiletries from hotels to shelters
*7. gloves, sweatshirts, sweaters, sneakers
*8. Dolls (including baby dolls for residents with Alzheimer’s disease)
*9. Sports equipment
FOR EMERGENCY VEHICLES
*11. stuffed animals (gently used) – Police, sheriff’s office, fire department, rescue squads, ambulance units (for hospitals must be brand-new)
MAKING KIDS HAPPY
*12. Fun pajamas, fun socks
*13. crayons from restaurants (and drawing pad, ribbon, note to have fun) Colormyworldproject.org, firstname.lastname@example.org
*14. Dancing shoes
*15. school supplies (and backpacks)
*16. Kid’s books – Gently-used – for kids in shelters, New – for hospitals
17. balloons (and then entertaining kids with them)
OTHER PROJECTS MAIMONIDES’ HIGHEST LEVEL OF TZEDAKAH –
PROVIDING OPPORTUNITIES FOR EMPLOYMENT
18. Purchasing kippot made by Guatemalan-Mayan women for your guests), www.mayaworks.org
19. Purchasing purses and clutches made by Honduran women as presents for girls and young women, www.Manosdemadres.org
FOR THE SYNAGOGUE
20. Magnifying glasses in synagogue for visually-impaired persons
21. Pull-down flap in Torah reading stand to have the Torah at eye level for people who use wheelchairs
22. Mitzvah crib for collecting items for infants
23. Centerpieces at Synagogue events: sports equipment, books, school supplies. If flowers: sectionalized (consult your florist) to donate to individuals who live alone or who can’t get out
FOR ELDERS IN NURSING HOMES AND ASSISTED LIVING FACILITIES
24. Plants for elders (and instructions for care of the plant)
25. Certifying your dog or cat to visit
26. Playing mah-jongg and poker with the residents
27. Making dreams come true – Second Wind Dreams (www.secondwind.org)
28. Invite a Veterinarian to speak at the synagogue to explain the Full range of human-animal interrelationships and benefits And set up a subcommittee of the synagogue Mitzvah committee Relating to human-animal interactions
29. Support Avshalom Beni’s awesome animal-assisted therapy program In Israel, HAMA-(ISRAEL)-Humans and Animals in Mutual Assistance, with money, donations of medications and equipment: email@example.com
30. Volunteer at an organization that provides therapeutic horseback riding For individuals with disabilities. Go to www.pathintl.org to find A local organization
31. Socialize a service guide dog for blind people or other people with disabilities
32. Learn about and observe a local program when children with reading problems and have the program introduced into the religious school, Contact Sharon Frant Brooks: Sfrantbrooks@excite.com
33. Have your local animal shelter train you to match rescue animals with individuals who might need them.
34. Donating money to an animal shelter to buy dog food for homeless people
HOSPITAL AND HEALTH-RELATED MITZVAHS
35. Donate videos and DVD’s – for kids and adults
36. Certifying your dog or cat to visit
37. Dolls and stuffed animal – new
38. Songs of Love – providing individual songs written for children with life threatening illnesses (www.songsoflove.org)
39. Hearing aid batteries
40. Casting for Recovery retreats for women who have had breast cancer surgery www.castingforrecovery.org
41. Providing challot for Shabbat and holidays
ASSISTANCE TO ELDERS OR INDIVIDUALS WITH DISABILITIES LIVING AT HOME
42. Checking smoke alarms
43. Changing light bulbs and other simple tasks
44. Raking leaves, cutting the lawn, taking care of plants and flowers
46. Walking dogs
47. Arranging for drivers to take them on errands and to community events
48. Do advocacy for Israel by reading honestreporting.com, CAMERA.org [Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, www.ngo-monitor.org, www.dailyalert.org and informing friends, schoolmates, and relatives about what you learned
49. Support Israeli Mitzvah heroes making an enormous impact on thousands of Individuals in Israel (go to: http://dannysiegel.com/finalzivreport.pdf for A description of their Tikkun Olam work)
THE BIG TIME
50. Run a bone marrow testing drive: www.giftoflife.org
51. Encourage a local medical school to integrate animal-assisted therapy into the curriculum. Virginia Commonwealth University (Richmond, VA) The Center For Human-Animal Interaction, firstname.lastname@example.org, Denice I. Ekey 52. Encourage a local veterinary school to take in animals for a family fleeing domestic violence (Use Google to find the program “Petsafe” at Purdue University’s School of Veterinary Medicine
53. Inform your local shelter for survivors of domestic violence of Face to Face: Surgeons who repair faces of women who are survivors of domestic violence battered free of charge, www.facetofacesurgery.org
To quote Nike, “Just do it.”
Sunday a friend of the family came to visit. We were sitting at the table, enjoying some barbecued hot dogs, when I noticed something on his ankle. It was a gun. A wave of discomfort washed over me. There was a gun in my home, near my baby. I asked our friend to remove his gun, and he did, graciously promising not to bring it next time he visited. For him, it was an act of polite sensitivity. Our friend, an off-duty peace officer, did not feel his gun was a danger to us. For me, it was a real and present threat to my child’s welfare, and a strong emotional response of protection.
I knew my husband had a gun when we started dating. He is ex Navy and used it for target practice more than “security.” At first I was curious. He took me out shooting and all my childhood “Charlie’s Angels” fantasies were realized. It was fun shooting a gun. It was thrilling hitting the target… and there were pancakes afterward. As Tim and I got more serious and discussed marriage, I explained that I respected his right to own a gun, but I didn’t want it in my home. I did not want a tool used by so many for such violence in the place in which I slept, ate, and hoped to make a family. As Tim was head over heals in love with me, he agreed, and sold his gun. There was some grumbling at my “insistence” and then it was a non issue.
On that terrible day when twenty children and their teachers were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School, my husband and I watched the news in horror. A disturbed man of twenty had taken guns from his mother’s home and shot classrooms full of frightenned little boys and girls. Tim turned to me and said “there is simply no reason to have a gun in your home.” I was stunned by his change of opinion, but perhaps I should be more surprised that in the days after that shooting, every decent gun owner in American didn’t immediately throw their weapons into a mass bonfire and vow to make Newtown the last tragedy of children shot at school. But we didn’t, and Newtown was not the last. Instead we are becoming used to hearing about school shootings on the news. They barely register any more.
Since the Newtown shooting in Dec 2012, there have been sixty five shootings at American schools. This is an amazingly large number in a short year and a half. This is not a worldwide phenomenon. In double that time, there have been five other school shootings: one in France, one in Norway, one in South Africa, one in Brazil, and one in Nigeria. I couldn’t find any more on the internet. This is obviously an issue particular to American society.
When my husband and I had the discussion so many years ago about not having a gun in our home, I told him my deepest fear was that we would be robbed and that the gun would be taken and used for violence against us or someone else. I didn’t want to be part of putting that violence into the world. I didn’t want a symbol of murder and grief in my home.
In the United States, we have more freedoms and rights than perhaps any other people in history. It is a country wealthy in philanthropy, culture, and diversity. But I fear we hold on too tightly, and perhaps too selfishly, to the mantle of our constitutional rights, when it puts our society as a whole in danger. No one would argue that we each have the right to drive as fast as we like or to burn down our homes, or even blast music too loudly too late at night. Yet, we shrink in fear at the idea of limiting (or eliminating) gun access for the safety of our neighborhoods and our children.
Judaism teaches us not to put a stumbling block before the blind (Lev 19:14) This is broadly interpreted to mean “don’t put temptation before someone and thus allow them to fall into sin.” We are also commanded to put railings on our roof tops (Deut 22:8), so as not to allow even a trespasser to fall into harm’s way. I believe strongly in our Torah’s wisdom. In creating a just and right society, we must take care of those who would fall. Waiting for the weakest among us to do so, then shaking our heads in dismay puts the sin on our shoulders. Rather let us remove the stumbling blocks and enact the legal fences necessary to keep us safe.
Mi Sheberach Avoteinu v’Imoteinu, Avraham, Sarah, Yitzhak, Rivka, Yaacov, Rachel, v’Leha, Yevarech et hayalei v’mishpachtam….
God who established covenants with Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, Rachel, and Leah, bless the soldiers who fight for our freedom and give comfort to their families.
Almighty God, bless the valiant soldiers of the Allied Forces who gave their lives to protect the welfare of all Your creation 70 years ago on Normandy beach. May You hold them in the succah of your loving protection for all eternity.
In their memory, we pledge to live our lives with gratitude for their sacrifice, with joy in our gifts, and appreciation for the beauty and fragility of the world. We honor them with each mitzvah performed, and each act of kindness freely given.
We pray for a true peace in fulfillment of the prophecy: “Nation shall not lift up sword against another nation, nor shall they learn war any more.”
Let all the inhabitants of the world be inspired by your Name and awed by your creation. May we work together to end violence and needless death and create a for a better world for our children grandchildren.
When I was a kid my friends and I would sing a song called “Don’t Throw your Junk in My Backyard.” The words are simple: “Don’t throw your junk in my backyard. My backyard’s full.” Depth and meaning in a nursery rhyme.
As a rabbi, I often find myself called on to try and rally volunteers around a cause or person in need. Inevitably as I make call after call, I listen more than I talk. Each person has a full plate of tsuris, an illness, a sick relative, financial difficulties, a flood in their basement, a legal issue… While most of my congregation are going about their lives and routine, they are dealing with pain, stress, and often anger. This is the way of life, each of us bearing up under the weight of what we are given to carry. With help from friends, neighbors, family and community, we bear it well and hopefully move through it, knowing that everyone else is struggling too.
Then there are those who so badly want to dump their anger and pain on others, they heave it at you like garbage. I always want to look them in the eye and say “doing my best, don’t throw your junk in my backyard, my backyard’s full.” David Pollay wrote a book called The Law of the Garbage Truck based on a remarkable experience in a New York cab. A car almost caused an accident which the cabi managed to narrowly avoid. He stopped by the side of the road only to have the car’s driver explode at him in anger. The cabbie only smiled and moved on. Pollay was astounded but the cabbie said, “people try to dump their garbage on you, their anger and pain, but you don’t have to receive it.” This became the core of Pollay’s book. We have a choice when we receive negativity from others, we can accept it, feel bad about ourselves, and pass it on to the next unsuspecting person, or we can simple refuse to accept it, smile and move on.
This week I have been witness to some terrible garbage dumping. I have seen hospitals endangering the care of their patients. I have seen nursing homes behaving unethically. I have seen care professionals dumping their charges like yesterday’s garbage. Through it all, I have wanted to bang heads together, to scream, to yell, to lash out in anger. But in my arms was my precious baby daughter, facing her own burden, a new tooth pushing its way into our lives. And so I smiled and I moved on. I looked closer and I saw the community of neighbors and friends rallying around an elderly person in need, fighting for him, caring for him, and wading through the red tape. I saw the holiness of God in unique individuals brought together for this cause, each putting aside their own burden to help someone who could no longer carry his alone.
In this week’s parashah, bamidbar, God asks Moses for a census of the Israelite people. The Hebrew word used in this directive is pekudim. Pekudim is an interesting word, used in the Torah to mean count, remember, destiny, and accounting. From this the rabbis learned that God was counting not our numbers, but our individuality. Each of us is unique and special to God. Each of us counts, would be missed by the world if we were not here, is part of the destiny of our circle, our family, our community. Every single one of us has something that counts toward the whole, that is accounted for in the lives of those we touch.
There is a Jewish law that orders us not to dump personal garbage onto pubic land. The talmud explains that while private land ownership is fleeting, (it can be lost or taken away,) communal land belongs to us always. Likewise, in the census, our individuality was counted towards the whole. Each of us has pain and anger but to dump it into the community as anger, neglect, or cruelty only weakens us first as a whole and finally as individuals. Whether it is whispered gossip or screaming tantrums, we taken something away from our world and our souls when we dump this garbage onto others.
God, who demanded we cry out against our slavery in Egypt
Hear our cries of protest now, our anger, our anguish, our outrage
300 school girls abducted at gunpoint from their school in Nigeria
Taken, enslaved, trapped, sold, raped, abandoned…
A parent cries for her child as I embrace mine
I will not stand idly by the blood of my neighbor
I-We demand action, from ourselves, our governments
I-We will pray with our feet, our voices, our consciences
God, give comfort to the child, the parent…
as we step from silence into action
God, lend us your strength, stand next to us as we
pray for the girls still held against their wills
as we step from silence to action
to redeem the captive
Did you know the Talmud contains everything from legal proofs to ghost stories and recipes? Why should my blog be less? Hold on to your hats. There’s a Rabbi Tziona original recipe coming.
Eliyana is a marvel and a wonder. She started crawling last week. Next week she turns one. There will be cake for baby and tequila for the parents. Recently she has refused to eat baby food, another notch in her development, but one that left me scratching my head. She adores strawberries… but until today that was the only healthy finger food she would eat. It was time to get serious. I went on the internet, called other parents and compiled a list… then I started cooking.
Broccolli trees were a flop. Chicken was rejected and the bagel was deemed best for throwing at the floor. Finally we hit on Carrot Pancakes! Halleluya. Still I wasn’t satisfied. She needed something green, something with protein. So I invented THE LENTIL SPINACH PANCAKE:
PUREE: 3/4 cup lentils, 1 cup fresh spinach, 1/2 tsp onion powder, 2 eggs, IN SEPERATE BOWL MIX: 4 tbsp whole wheat flour, 1/4 tsp salt, 1 tsp baking powder, STIR DRY INTO WET SLOWLY, plop by spoonful onto warm frying pan prepped with olive oil. YUM.
I served Eliyana the lentil spinach pancakes cut into spears she could hold in her hand with yogurt for dipping. She actually sang a little song while eating. It went like this: Mum, mum, mum, mum, mum…. High praise indeed and I sat down to savour the moment. Unfortunately she would not repeat the song for the ivideo… but enjoy nonetheless:
I thank God for bringing us in health and joy to these moments.