Reading Song Of Songs on Passover

It is traditional to read Song of Songs on the Shabbat that falls within Passover.  I have to thank Rabbi Benjamin Scolnic who opened my eyes to the depths of Shir Hashirim in his article “Why do we sing the Song of Songs on Passover?”. I had always learned that Song of Songs is an allegory for the love between Israel and God but had some modern skepticism.  After all the verses are quite erotic, which seems a more pagan than Jewish description of God.  Rabbi Scolnic convinced me otherwise. Below is a text study I created based on Rabbi Scolnic’s scholarship:

1. Was Song of Songs originally conceived as metaphor for the relationship between God and Israel?

a)  The difficulty with the allegorical approach is that while this interpretation was dominant for a thousand years and more, it is not easy to sustain, because the love described in the Song is so obviously and in such rich detail the love between man and woman. Contemporary Scripture scholarship has routed the allegorical inter­ pretation: The Song is secular love poetry, a collection of love songs gathered around a single theme. . . .    It was placed in the canon o f the Scriptures because it was so well loved by the Israelite people that the Scriptures seemed a good place to preserve it.

Andrew M Greeley and Jacob Neusner, The Bible and Us: A Priest and a Rabbi Read Scripture Together (New York: Warner, 1990)

b)  In Mishnah Eduyot 5:3, Rabbi Akiva claims that Song of Songs is the “Holy of  Holies”  How could the rabbis, who were horrified by fertility cults, sacred prostitution, and idolatrous rites, understand this piece of erotica as allegory for our relationship with God?  A key distinction between the Israelite and             pagan portrayals of Divine love is that no pagan culture spoke of a god as a husband or lover of his people.  Song of Songs is the continuation of a long prophetic history of describing our relationship with God in terms of fidelity, using the metaphor of husband and wife. The Song of Songs is the completion of the metaphor.  The prophets denounced infidelity and the Song of Songs  spoke of reunion and love.

Rabbi Benjamin Edidin Scolnic, Why Do We Sing the Song of  Songs on  Passover?, Conservative Judaism, Vol 48

c)   From Amos to Ezekiel, the prophets describe infidelity to God as adultery, promiscuity, sexual laity, and prostitution:

i) Hosea 1:1-2  The beginning of the word of the Lord by Hosea. And the Lord said to Hosea, Go, take unto thee a wife of whoredoms and children of whoredoms: for the land hath committed great whoredom, departing from the Lord.

ii) Hosea 3:1 Again the Lord said to me: Go, love a woman who is loved by her  spouse but commits adultery; Just as the Lord loves the Israelites, though they turn to  other gods….”

iii) Ezekiel 16:15-59 But thou didst trust in thy beauty and play the harlot because of thy renown, and didst pour out thy harlotries on every one that passed by; his it was.  And thou didst take of thy garments, and didst make for thee high places decked with diverse colors, and didst play the harlot upon them; the like things shall not come, neither shall it be so. Thou didst also take thy fair jewels of My gold and of My silver, which I had given thee, and made for thee images of men, and didst play the  harlot with them; and  thou didst take thy richly woven garments and cover them, and didst set Mine oil and Mine  incense before them. My bread also which I gave thee, fine flour, and oil, and honey, wherewith I fed thee, thou didst even set it before them for a sweet savor, and thus it  was; saith the Lord GOD.

iv) Isaiah 57:3-13

But draw near hither,

Ye sons of the sorceress,

The seed of the adulterer and the harlot.

Against whom do ye sport yourselves?

Against whom make ye a wide mouth,

And draw out the tongue?

Are ye not children of transgression,

A seed of falsehood,

Ye that inflame yourselves among the terebinths,

Under every leafy tree;

That slay the children in the valleys,

Under the clefts of the rocks?

Among the smooth stones of the valley is thy portion;

They, they are thy lot;

Even to them hast thou poured a drink-offering,

Thou hast offered a meal-offering.

Should I pacify Myself for these things?

Upon a high and lofty mountain

Hast thou set thy bed;

Thither also wentest thou up

To offer sacrifice.

And behind the doors and the posts

Hast thou set up thy symbol;

For thou hast uncovered, and art gone up from Me,

Thou hast enlarged thy bed,

And chosen thee of them

Whose bed thou lovedst,

Whose hand thou sawest.

And thou wentest to the king with ointment,

And didst increase thy perfumes,

And didst send thine ambassadors far off,

Even down to the nether-world.

Thou wast wearied with the length of thy way; yet saidst thou not: ‘There is no hope’; thou didst find a renewal of thy strength, therefore thou wast not affected. And of whom hast thou been afraid and in fear, that thou wouldest fail? And as for Me, thou hast not remembered Me, nor laid it to thy heart. Have not I held My peace even of long time? Therefore thou fearest Me not. I will declare thy righteousness; thy works also—they shall not profit thee. When thou criest, let them that thou hast gathered deliver thee; but the wind shall carry them all away, a breath shall bear them off; but he that taketh refuge in Me shall possess the land, and shall inherit My holy mountain.

2. Does Song of Songs speak to today’s theology?

a)   The love described in Song of Songs is a struggle, a longing, a search.  It  describes a theology of yearning.

By night on my bed,

I sought him whom my soul loves.

I sought him but I found him not… (Song of Songs 3:1)

Harold Frish, Poetry with a Purpose: Biblical Poetics and Interpretation (Bloomington: Indiana Univeristy, 1990)

b)   In the metaphorical interpretation, human love and covenantal love are reflections of each other. Thus at the end of the Song the woman describes her  love for her man as being like “God’s Flame,” the love between them will not   only be as strong as death; it will be as strong as God’s love for His people. The Song then can be seen as a double metaphor. Not only is God’s love like human love, but, our love, yours and mine, is like God’s love. Human love must be seen as sanctified because it is like God’s love. The metaphorical interpretation does not interpret away human love. Rather, it sacramentalizes  it: human love is a hint of divine love, and divine love is a hint of what human love can really be.

Andrew M Greeley and Jacob Neusner, The Bible and Us: A Priest and a  Rabbi Read Scripture Together (New York: Warner, 1990)

3.  Is the Song of Songs a Midrash on Exodus?

a)  Song of Songs 2:14

My dove in the cleft of the rock

In the hiding place of the steep

Show me your  visage

Let me hear your voice

For your voice is lovely

And your visage is beautiful.

Shir HaShirim Rabba:  R. Eliezer decoded the verse in the hour that Israel stood at the sea. My dove in the cleft o f the rock in the hiding place o f the   steep [Song 2:14], that they were hidden in the hiding place of the sea—Show me your visage; this is what is written, “Stand forth and see the salvation of the  Lord” [Exod. 14:13]—Let me hear your voice; this is the singing, as it says, “Then Moses sang” [Ex. 15:1]—For your voice is lovely; this is the Song—And  your visage is beautiful; for Israel were pointing with their fingers and saying “This is my God and I will beautify Him” [Ex. 15:2].

b)   Song of Songs 2:8:1


My Beloved!

There He Comes,

Leaping Over Mountains,

Bounding Over Hills.

Shir HaShirim Rabba:  R. Judah says, The voice of my beloved . . . this refers to Moses.” When he came and said to the Israelites, “In this month you will be redeemed,” they said to him, “Our lord Moses, how are we going to be redeemed? And did not the Holy One, blessed be He, say to Abraham, And they shall work them and torment them for four hundred years. (Gen. XV 13), and now we have in hand only two hundred and ten years?”18 He said to them: “Since He wants to redeem you, he is not going to pay attention to these reckonings of yours.” But Leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills. The reference here to mountains and hills in fact alludes to calculations and specific times. “He leaps” over reckonings, calculations, and specific times. “And in this month you are to be redeemed: This month is the beginning of months (Ex. 12:1).”

4. Song of Songs and Finding God in the Synagogue

There are many Jewish people who feel separated from God. We often don’t recognize their agony. It is to these people that I would bring one or both of these passages from Shir Hashirim Rabbah:

Whither has your beloved gone, O fairest among women? (Song of Songs 6:1) The nations of the world [here] speak to Israel: “Whither has your beloved gone? From Egypt to the Sea, to Sinai. Whither has your beloved turned?” And Israel answers the nations of the world . . . . “Once I had cleaved to Him, can I be apart from Him? Once He had cleaved to me, can He depart from me? Wherever He may be, he comes to me.” (SS Rabbah 6:1:1)

My beloved is like a gazelle. Just as a gazelle leaps from mountain to mountain, from hill to hill, tree to tree, thicket to thicket, fence to fence, so the Holy One, blessed be He, leaps from one synagogue to another synagogue . . . .    (SS Rabbah 2:9:2)

“In the first passage, the nations are saying to the Jewish people: “Where is your God? You’re downtrodden and He’s off somewhere doing miracles. He used to do miracles for you at the Red Sea and Sinai, but what has He done for you lately?” The Jewish response is: He’s on His way. And where is God coming? In very simple fashion, the second passage says that He’s going from shul to shul, looking for those who have felt separated from Him.”

Rabbi Benjamin Edidin Scolnic, Why Do We Sing the Song of  Songs on Passover?, Conservative Judaism, Vol 48

Global Economy

I fell in love with books in high school, especially with the writings of Margaret Atwood. For a senior literary project I read all of Atwood’s novels to date (1993) and wrote on the theme of feminism that ran through them.  One novel did not fit neatly into my thesis, The Handmaid’s Tale.  I remember earnestly discussing the difficulty with my English teacher who quickly suggested I classify the novel as science fiction and leave it out of my paper.  In hindsight I certainly can’t fault her for avoiding a discussion with a seventeen year old on the finer details of subtle and not so subtle subjugation of women. It’s an amazing thing to look back on one’s own youthful thoughts and smile at the naivete.  If I talked to my seventeen year old self now, would she understand that forcing women into predefined roles whether by gunpoint or commercialization are indeed the same issue?

As the Rabbi, I try to keep up with with what the kids in my congregation are reading and watching and so I read the Hunger Games trilogy. I was brought back immediately to my own teen years.  Here was a dystopia, post apocalyptic nation, the same genre as Handmaid’s Tale.  I wondered if the teens and preteens reading it saw it only as entertaining fiction, or understood the social commentary at play.  The main character, Katniss, lives in one of many districts that exists to serve The Capitol.  Each district produces a single specialty needed by society from the training of military youth in one zone to food refinement in another, to technology in a third.  Katniss’s area is the very poorest, producing only food in its raw state.  The residents are not allowed to eat the food of their farms, only to ship it to the capitol and await their rations in return.  While Katniss and her neighbors starve, the people of the Capitol are surrounded by so much plenty their culture developed a vomit pill so they can eat their fill, purge, and keep eating.  I wonder do the teachers who assign the Hunger Games to their students discuss with them that the book describes our current world’s “global economy” from the perspective of a teenager living in the third world?

In North America, we live in plenty. It is easy to avoid thinking about the slave labor used to harvest cocoa beans or make crude metal half a world away.  Our post-colonial global economy is guilty of the same sins under different title.  Once the King of Belgium decimated the Congo, extracting rubber by enslaving the local population.  Now large first world corporations subcontract to companies who subcontract to others… each one looking the other way, concentrating on the cheapest price possible, and ignoring the slave labor used half a world away.  The key is accountability.  We, the consumer are accountable.  We need to keep  the companies we purchase from accountable and they need to to keep all business partners and subcontractors accountable.

Bubie Marge z”l

My grandmother, Marge Torontour Mintz, was named for Miriam.  This seems appropriate to me as I can picture her dancing in wild colors with tamborine or drum along with Miriam and the women in the desert. My grandmother loved to dance. She loved life. When Miriam died, everything stopped.  The very water that had sustained the Israelites ceased to flow.   My grandmother, who died last week, was a constant source of love in my life.  She has always been there.  Her absence leaves a great hollow in my heart.  It feels like the very water, the life source of our family, has stopped flowing.  I grieve the emptiness her passing leaves.  I miss her.

At her advanced age, her passing was not a surprise, yet I had come to believe in my grandmother’s indomitable spirit.  I thought she would stay with me a while longer… I wanted to be able to place my daughter in her arms…. She died just two months shy of her 95th birthday.  My daughter, still waiting on her US citizenship papers never made it to Toronto to be held by her great grandmother. I am grateful my grandmother lived to see our adoption complete, to meet Eliyana by skype and to rejoice with me.  I am blessed that my grandmother was such a large part of my life, that her influence and teaching, her stories and art, are an intricate part of my soul today.

My grandmother clung to life with both hands.  At 93 she insisted on the surgery needed to repair her broken hip and though she was confined afterward to a wheelchair, she continued to work towards walking again.  We should not have doubted her.  A year later she was walking.  She was stubborn and demanding… and she was fabulous.  I loved her in her entirety.  She was a force to be reconned with.  A spitfire some called her, her spirit lit the room.

In the deaths of Nadiv and Abihu, Aaron’s beloved sons, the Torah gives no hint that Aaron was allowed time to grieve.  Instead, immediately following their deaths, God gives instructions to Moses for Aaron on appropriate sin offerings.  Traditionally we have explained that Nadiv and Abihu sinned in giving inappropriate sacrifices to God and died for their mistake.  The Chassidim reject this interpretation. According to one Chassidic text, Nadiv and Abihu entered the holy of holies in a heightened spiritual state, cleaving to God.  They drew near to God with such passion that their souls left the mundane earth and did not know how to return.  The Chassidim see the story as a cautionary tale to remain grounded in life even as we reach for heaven.

My Bubie Marge was incredibly grounded in life. She wanted to be here, to see the next adventure, to be surrounded by family, and rejoice in their life steps.  As a little girl, my grandmother was diagnosed with a congenital lung defect.  She remembered the “great doctor” telling her parents, “this child will never live to see adulthood”. But my grandmother did live, and would tell the story with glee, adding that she was still alive and that the famous doctor was long dead. In the 1920s, the only course of action available to her parents was to send her away to live in a convent in the country.  It was a very lonely existence for a little Jewish girl from Montreal.  She survived, learning to embroider and crotchet, and telling her grandchildren stories of ribbons won for her good work there.  After returning to her family, life was not much easier: They were poor.  In fifth grade my grandmother left school to go to work and help support her family. A few years later she met Ben Mintz, they courted and he asked her to marry him.

My grandmother tells a fantastic story of the pajamas she and her mother crafted for my grandfather as a wedding gift.  They could only afford leftover scraps of material but found a good solid stripe print. They spent hours matching up the bits and pieces of fabric so the striped would align and my grandmother, a young bride presented the pajamas to her husband.  My grandfather smiled quietly as my grandmother finished the story: “they were awful, I don’t know how he wore them.”  And I smile now, remembering the joy of sitting with my grandparents listening to my grandmother weave tales of her history, her life.  Matching up scraps to create something entirely new, this is a good metaphor for my grandmother’s life.

Marge MintzBubie was an artist.  I reveled in visiting her to see the wonders she would pick up at flea markets and rework into incredible creations.  If she found a wool sweater at a garage sale she would spend the next weeks unraveling it to store and make something new of.  If she found a jacket with bead fringes she would bargain the seller down to the ten cents she claimed it was worth then remove all the beads to reuse in her next art project. In her 60s Bubie went back to college and got her bachelor of fine arts from York University. While there she continued to pursue her dreams with her own unique flare.  If the assignment was an essay, my grandmother was just as likely to hand in a book of collage with poetry and research interspersed with original art and pictures cut from magazines. If the assignment was a bust, she made fiber art in three dimensions, rather than the usual clay.  She graduated with honors, proud to walk in graduation with hat and gown. Amazingly, she stayed in contact with her young University friends into her 90s by joining facebook.

After University, my grandmother applied for and received multiple Canada Arts Council grants which she used to make documentary movies about early Canadian pioneer women and the needlework tools they brought from the old country.  She had collected incredible needlework antiques, researched them, and would lecture at museums on their use. She was very involved in the Older Women’s Network which acted for social and political change.  She organized senior trips to Stratford for afternoons of Theatre, educational workshops on con artists, and established senior classes on computer and internet skills. She was a model of industry, working to make tikkun olam in her corner of the world.

My grandmother filled my life with love, stories, art, and adventure.  My sister and I would often spend the day at Bubie Marge‘s and she always had something special planned. Sometimes it was pressing and arranging dried flowers, or picking raspberries, or watching old black and white movies with full commentary on the actors from my grandmother.  She taught me to love Charlie Chaplin and Shirley Temple.  She taught me to savor fresh fruit, good quality yarns, and solid shoes.  She taught me to crotchet and knit, to embroider and bead, and to stop by the side of the road if there were interesting wild flowers to be picked.  She made me giggle with her stinky sock routine.  She took me out to high tea.  We sang “Tea for two”.  She ended every conversation with “have I told you lately that I love you.” She built herself a a wondrous hat and covered it with beach glass… the drive down here for my wedding tired her but when the music started she danced enthusiastically, wowing everyone.

My grandmother was at her core an artist and a student of life.  She loved to learn, to philosophize, to create.  She was always at the library, researching and happily embraced the internet when it became a source for study.  She would research for months on a particular topic before turning it into her latest art creation.  When I visited Bubie, it was not to make cookies but to tie dye handmade paper that we would make into fabulous puppets.  She would regale me with tales of her trips to Spain, Italy and India.  She would speak at length about the role of unions, women’s empowerment, and socialized medicine in ending poverty.

Unlike Nadiv and Abihu my grandmother was rooted in the solidness of life. She often felt this left no room for spirituality.  Her life was children and grandchildren, art and craft, everything held solidly hand and heart.  In truth all of us felt her spirituality in her zest for life, her enthusiasm, her stories, and her art.  Her hip surgery at age 93 was her third.  Her second was at age 91 and I spent a week then in the hospital with her awaiting surgery.  It was an incredible time.  She was in excruciating pain.  We waited.  The room was stuffy and depressing, with an elderly women dying the bed next to us.  We waited.  Finally I told the nursing staff I wanted a wheelchair… I was taking her outside.  The nurses were horrified.  I insisted.  We left. We sat just outside the front of the hospital in a small patch of grass under a tree watching the birds and listening to the traffic, pretending the cars of the highways were really the crash of waves against the beach.  My grandmother told me she didn’t know how to pray.  I assured her all she had to do was stand before God and speak what was in her heart.  While she was recovering from that hip surgery, she wrote this prayer.  It says everything.


Hineni means simply Here I am.

Here I am God, waiting for your command.

Here I am an elderly person and God has called on me to let go,

to let others, who are more capable, do for me.

I love to look after myself,

to be responsible for making my own decisions.

Of course I appreciate being loved,

but I don’t want to be taken care of.

God please I don’t want to be old.

I have been told by God that it is time to let go,

to wait for others to help me.

But Dear God,

I have always been the one who was capable.

I made so many cakes and so many cookies.

Everybody came to my house.

There is going to be a big dinner for Rosh Hashanah

and I will only sit and smile.

That makes me lonely.

Will You hear my prayer?

Have I nothing left to give?

Will You hear my prayer?



New Model Elder Care


Honored to have my article on caring for the elderly within community published in KOLOT: Voices of Conservative Judaism Magazine.

photo Kabbalat Shabbat at Woodland Manor

Residents of Woodland Manor and Temple Israel Daveners getting ready for Kabbalat Shabbat.

She Sleeps

she sleeps

smelling like today’s strawberries

snoring between mommy and daddy

I am at the edge of the bed

still, she inches closer, happily mashed into my side

one minute, absolute peace in her body and face, arms flung out to the side, demanding her space

the next, one hand on my arm, the other, a thumb in her mouth, her breath on my face

and on this special night when I can not sleep

I watch her in love and awe

shall I roll her back to the middle of the bed?

I smile knowing that she will only inch closer once again…

she opens her eyes but for a moment

and then they close once more

a small bundle of potential and possibility

my heart

my joy

enjoy your sleep little one

Mama is watching over you.

Letting Go of “Perfect”

In the many jobs I have had since I started working at age 15, I have only been  fired once –as student gabbai at the Jewish Theological Seminary synagogue.  I look back on the memory lovingly now, having learned so much since then.  At the time, I felt wholly inadequate and underprepared in the traditional laws surrounding Jewish worship.  The drive to master these was spurred by my passion for Judaism and a rabbinical school dedicated to their preservation.  I, as a student, wanted to work as gabbai so I could learn with practice to do the job well; the rule at JTS was a worship service that was technically perfect, serving as a model to students. The educational theory was that we would learn if we were exposed to the service in pristine perfection. I did not make the cut.  At that time, prayer was not a course requirement to become a rabbi, we learned on our own time. I felt ill equipped as a Jew and a rabbi.  More than modeling classic prayer, my seminary experience left me feeling I needed to be perfect in order to be a rabbi.

It was my congregants that taught me otherwise and for their kind wisdom I am eternally grateful.  In a shul in Connecticut a dedicated group of 10 welcomed me, a brand new knee-knocking assistant rabbi, into their daily minyan.  They were incredibly supportive of me, and anyone, who wanted to lead prayer.   I learned like, Nachshon, to leap into prayer with both feet, and worry about the correct tunes later.  My congregants did not mind if my voice cracked or I changed key mid song.  They were not hung up on the prayer being perfect, only on the true values of our tradition: community, tradition, and God  –that Judaism and God are served better by an imperfect nusach than a Jew in fearful silence.

So often I meet fellow Jews terrified to lead Jewish prayer for fear of making a mistake, of not being perfect.  As a rabbi, I try to nurture davening talent in my congregants, encouraging them take up the mantle of prayer leadership.  Often, people are afraid to stop learning and jump into davening because they don’t yet have the skill “perfected.”  ”Naaseh V’nishma,” I tell them.  Action precedes understanding in Jewish theology.  We do and from our practice comes understanding.  And then I tell them the greatest secret of Jewish prayer ever revealed… “if you go blank on a tune, make one up, if you forget a word, mumble and move forward.”

The intricacy of our liturgy and the laws surrounding their recitation have built walls around our prayer that reach higher than the tower of Babel, impenetrable.  Just like Babel, the towers we build leave us isolated, and unfulfilled.  Our stress on perfection brings us no closer to God.  A better model for us would be King David who “danced before the Lord with all his might.” (2 Samuel 6:14)  He was not afraid of “what he would look like” but dug deep into his heart to express himself fully to God.

This is true for so much in life.  Our fear of looking ridiculous, of trying something new for fear of falling over our clumsiness, hold us back.  Far greater that being perfect in our own small domain, is Judaism’s call to live life to the fullest, to keep learning and growing.

Twenty years after graduating from the seminary I can easily lead a service from our prayerbook.  Now the challenge is find a deeper level of kavanah, to leave the words of the prayerbook and dance before God in my heart.   Sometimes as I lead, I close my eyes and feel the prayer in my soul.  Often this means I stumble on a word when I again look down at the prayerbook. God bless the next twenty years of learning curve.  May I have the courage to continue to let go of being perfect and the strength of Nachshon and David to leap and dance in life and before God.

Transition and Ending: Facing Our Fear

Guest Blog Post from Rabbi Nadia Siritsky

In a famous Charlie Brown cartoon the children are looking at the clouds and Linus says ‘See that one cloud over there? It sort of looks like the profile of Thomas Eakins, the famous portrait painter. And that other group over there – that looks as though it could be a map of British Honduras. And then do you see that large group of clouds up there? I see mythology in the making, with some of our earliest historical figures depicted by the shifting clouds.’ Then Lucy says, ‘That’s very good, Linus. It shows you have quite a good imagination. What do you see in the clouds, Charlie Brown?’ And Charlie says, ‘Well I was going to say I saw a ducky and a horsey but now I’ve changed my mind.’

Sometimes, when we read our Torah, we may feel like Charlie Brown, as we try to understand where our rabbis are coming from in their commentaries. Many of you will have probably noticed by now, that for our rabbis, everything is susceptible to interpretation, including even the physical appearance of the Torah text, the size and shape of the letters or the spaces between words.

In our Torah scroll the parashiot are all separated by an intervening space, all except parashah Vayechi.  Our rabbis understand this anomaly as holding the key to the inner meaning of our Torah portion which is entitled: Vayechi: he will live, and which speaks instead about Jacob’s death. The lack of separation between Torah portions calls us to become mindful of the ways in which death and life are often intertwined, and the ways in which death can lead us back into life. Joseph gathers his sons together, to offer them his blessing and wisdom, and in so doing, he lives on through them, and through all of us.

There is a deep spiritual meaning in this seamless transition from life to death.  It calls us to be more attentive to our own lives and those close to us.  We all live in a space in between. We rarely acknowledge it, certainly in our death denying culture. But Judaism calls us to be mindful of it. Our rabbis tell us to try to live every day as if it might be our last, with a belief that this might inspire us to make choices that are less motivated by temporary concerns, and more in line with our deeper values and the way that we want to be remembered after we are gone. The awareness that we are always hovering between death and life need not scare us, but rather should prompt us to keep searching for light and meaning.  With this in mind, we turn our attention to Jacob, hoping that his parting words might illumine our own shadowy doubts regarding our future.

Our rabbis comment that Jacob on his deathbed intended to share with his sons a glimpse of things to come, but he was denied the vision. The noteworthy absence of any defining space in the Torah scroll at the beginning of Vayechi suggested to the rabbinic imagination, stored in Bereishit Rabba, that the prophetic insight granted to Jacob momentarily, near the end of his life, seemed to evaporate before he was able to put it into words.

The first two verses of the deathbed scene seem repetitive: “And Jacob called his sons and said, ‘Come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in days to come. Assemble and hearken, O sons of Jacob; Hearken to Israel your father (49:1-2).’”Our rabbis wonder why he sounds like he is repeating himself, when, with time pressing and the end nearing, he should be trying to make the most out of every word and every moment. Instead, Jacob sounds tentative, almost stalling for time. Of course it is normal to be scared of endings, and to try to hold on. But, we can learn from this that when we stall for time, instead of living in the moment, sometimes we lose out too.

Our rabbis note that, as Jacob stalls, the illumination begins to darken and the vision begins to fade. Jacob ends up talking about past hurts instead of future blessings: “Reuben, you are my first born … unstable as water … What you have done to me in the past has brought me disgrace.”  What we can learn from this is that when we let fear keep us from seizing the moment and making holy choices, that fear can lead us away from light and into a dark bitterness. It is all too easy to hold on to anger and hurt. How often do we become scared that past disappointments will repeat themselves?

We, no less than Jacob, and his sons, yearn for moments of light to illumine our own darkness, our own fears for the future.  At times of transition and change, in the midst of the loss that must inevitably accompany any change, we may also try to peer ahead into a dimly lit future. Uncertain, we too may be tempted to shift from hope to fear, from trust to resentment. But Jacob’s hesitation reminds us that, while it is normal to hesitate, time is short and fleeting, and we should do what we can to make the most of the present.

Rabbi Dov Baer, the Maggid of Mezerich, taught that, rather than be afraid of endings and transitions, we should try to embrace the process, and trust that, ultimately, it will lead us toward life and blessing. He said: Nothing can be transformed from one thing to another unless it first loses its original identity. Thus for example, before an egg can become a chicken, it must cease completely to be an egg. Each thing must be nullified before it can become something else. Only then can it become something else.”

As scary as endings can feel, new beginnings are only possible when we release our hold on what was. Our Torah portion for this week represents not only the end of Jacob’s life, but also the end of the book of Genesis, a book that was turbulent and filled with sibling rivalry, fratricide, family members competing over God’s favor, and destroying each other in the process. Abel, Ham, Lot , Ishmael, Esau…  each generation has repeated the mistakes of the previous one… cutting off one another in an attempt to hold onto the elusive family blessing.  Perhaps each were replaying that initial trauma of having been expelled from Eden? 

The story of Joseph, whose brothers want to kill him and ultimately sell him into slavery, once again seems to take on the familiar echo of generations past. Yet it ends on a redemptive note of family reconciliation and blessing. It also marks the beginning of the story of the Jewish people that ultimately led us to Torah and the promised land. Ultimately our Torah portion reminds us that healing and forgiveness, blessing and reunion are possible. As Jacob ends his life, surrounded by his family, even as he hesitates at first, and holds on to resentment, ultimately, he realizes that, even if he may not be able to predict the future for his children, but he still is able to give them his final blessing, and trust them to figure out how to actualize it for themselves. In so doing, he recommits himself to life, blessing, healing and legacy.

I can not read this death scene of Jacob, and not think of the great Nelson Mandela’s whose death we marked this year, by pausing to celebrate his life and his enduring legacy, his courage and his determination, his vision for a world redeemed. He did not look to his time in jail as an end- as defeat. He used it as a time to grow and learn, to refine his tools so that he emerged even stronger and wiser than before. He too, can teach us so much about how to face loss, and moments of transition, and look forward with trust and faith. Had he looked only to the past, he would not have found the strength to fight for a vision of equality that South Africa did not yet know. He took every ending and obstacle, and harnessed the wisdom he learned from it, in order to actualize his quest for justice, creating a world where all people, created in God’s image, would be able to be treated with the respect and dignity that they deserve.

May our Sabbath bring us opportunity for reflection and reconnection with those in our lives, that we may transcend the weight of the past and be granted Light, blessing, healing and wholeness. Let us not be afraid of endings, but find the strength and faith to embrace them, and the courage to use them to work for a redemption that we pray will be our legacy. 

Inviting God to Lunch

When I was a little girl, my grandmother took me for a full tea, mini sandwiches, scones with clotted cream, and petit fours.  It was to be the first of many wonderful teas together and I never forgot it.  I was awestruck by the multi-tiered platers, the fine china cups and the crustless cucumber sandwiches. We sat on the small veranda of a restaurant watching a nearby stream.  It was such a special time, just the two of us, being very ladylike, and enjoying it with all the enthusiasm of childhood.

mommy and eI was reminded of this when my daughter and I went out for our first lunch together this week.  After a difficult morning at the doctor’s office for routine poking and prodding of a patient then tearful baby, I took us out to a favorite restaurant, the Moosewood.  With the magic of strained pears pulled from my bag, we were two ladies out on the town.  In this special moment I felt God’s presence invited to join us. We reveled in each other’s presence, in a moment stopped in time, and this opened the door to the holy.

I spent many years awaiting my beautiful daughter and dreaming of the wonderful shechechiyanu moments we would have together.  The images were complete with first trips to the park, new coats, and hat.  The reality is more wondrous than the dream.  Though the hat turned out to be pink not blue. This week Eliyana discovered rolling over from front to back… a foolproof way to get out of the detested Mommy enforced “tummy time.”  She also had her first trip down a slide, ate her first mum mum cookie, and drank from her first sippy cup.  With each, her eyes opened wide with enthusiasm for the new experience and my heart galloped as I travelled with her on the journey of discovery.  In each moment I felt the holy, God’s presence joining me as time stopped for joy.

The firsts are truly amazing, as are the seconds, the thirds and the fourths.  Each step in my daughter’s development and growth is like opening a door to a new universe.  I thank God for allowing me to bear witness to these small miracles.  In Jewish tradition, new experiences call for the shechechiyanu prayer.  I thank God for enabling us to reach this time of new experience, for taking joy in the wonder of the world around us, and for helping us be present for each other as we grow and learn.


Constructing Shabbat

It is not always easy attending Shabbat services with a baby.  I cringe each time she cries out, worried that she is marring the community’s prayer space.  But each week I bring her again to Temple Israel services and each week we are part of a great construction, the building of Shabbat.

In Judaism, spiritual space is constructed with fine attention to detail.  The sabbath is not just a time of rest.  It is holiness constructed by diligent observance of 39 melachot, 39 forbidden labors.  Looking at the heart of the Jewish Sabbath one sees laws upon laws, like an onion peeled of it’s layers.  It can take years to wrap one’s head around the multitude of forbidden acts that make up our sabbath.  Observance is counter intuitive.  Why study, prepare, work and sweat, to make a day of rest?  The answer lies in the concept of construction.  With each forbidden act, with each call to mitzvah, we construct a space wholly (holy) different from the prosaic.

The laws that guard our sabbath are taken the building of mishkan, tabernacle.  In Exodus (20:8-11) we are commanded to cease working on the shabbat just as God ceased all work on the seventh day of creation (Gen 2:2).  The Torah does not specify or define this work.  The rabbis find the answer in the juxtaposition of the command to build the mishkan and the the command to keep the sabbath. (Parashah Vayekhel, Ex 35:1-5)  The construction of the mishkan becomes a microcosm, defining every sort of human act of creation.  The labor of mankind, human creation, ceases on the shabbat, to construct a space honoring God’s creation.

There is a poetry, a thread of holy inspiration, in taking the tools to create a sabbath space, a feature of time, from the labors used to create the mishkan, a physical entity.  As humans we crave the safety and comfort of walls around us.  God was ever present for Israel in the desert, guiding them as a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night… but we craved the physical building.  God gave instructions and all of Israel’s artists came forth to construct a physical space of holiness.  Shabbat is a concept, a time… but we made it concrete, observable.  From the construction of the mishkan is built a sabbath space.  Shabbat becomes a place, a home, a sanctuary.

The Jews are a people who have known what it is to wander without a home. Our Sabbath is constructed to be a space in which we can dwell no matter where we are.  Even as Temple Israel works to rebuild our beautiful building, our community has rallied to make Shabbat together.  Our artisans furnished us with the familiar wine and challah each week, arks on wheels, friendship and warmth.  No less than the tent poles of the great mishkan, our community constructs itself anew each shabbat as it raises the space in which we observe shabbat.  Each week we make a holy space and in this space we invite God and community into our lives.

Shema – Wonder and Joy

Mommy and baby Addis trip 1Each night as I rock my daughter to sleep, I sing her the Shema and V’Ahavta prayer. I sing the verses over and over again until we are both lulled into a place of warmth and comfort. She has come to understand the connection between this prayer and sleep but this was not the case the first time I sang it to her.  In the hotel room in Addis Ababa, the first night she was ours, my husband and I hovered over our beautiful child, cooing her to sleep.  She was drifting off but when I began to sing the Shema, my daughter’s eyes popped wide open and she smiled happily at me fully awake.  I was moved to tears.

I had anticipated the Shechinah, God’s presence, joining us in that first Shema moment –bringing a calming peace to bedtime. Instead Eliyana encountered the Shema with eyes wide open.  She embraced her first taste of Judaism with great joy and awareness.  I was filled with pride and happiness in my child, my religion, and in the future our family would build together.

The Shema announces our covenant with God, a spiritual contract for how we live our lives.  It should be said with open eyes and heart.  It is traditionally said three times a day, during morning and evening services and again at night before going to sleep.  It is meant to be the last words on our lips as we leave this world and the first words of Torah we learn as children.

My mother taught me the Shema when I was very little.  It is one of my earliest memories.  I couldn’t have been more than five years old.  My mother chanted each word for me and I repeated until I had it memorized.  Oh the pride I felt in shul when it was time to say the shema and I too knew the words.  My mother’s gift was more than prayer, it was community.  It was covenant with God and history and peoplehood.  And it was all mine.

My husband and I joke that our daughter will now associate the Shema so strongly with bedtime that she will promptly fall asleep when we arrive at the Shema in the Shabbat service.  I am not worried.  I remember that first Shema we shared, her eyes smiling and alert as I sang.  This is her gift, a covenant with God that began in wonder and joy.