Last night our family had our first Chanukah candle together. It was a special moment. One I didn’t anticipate would carry such sweetness. I came home from leading prayer services, Eliyana tired out from a long day, my energy flagging behind hers. We had planned a taco dinner but were just too bushed to cook or eat. My husband arrived home from his hour long commute just a few minutes before us. He set up the Hannukiah in the window with candles and matches. We lit the candles together, Eliyana first in Daddy’s arms, then mine, as we sang our prayers together. Such a small moment together and so meaningful to me. I was touched that my husband had everything ready for us when we walked it. I was warmed by the picture of our family standing together, our first Chanukah. We didn’t buy Eliyana or each other presents this year. We lit the candles. We said the prayers. We ate chocolate. It was perfect. Perhaps gifts seem superfluous in the face of the blessings we have received this past year. This time last year, Tim and I were booking a flight to Ethiopia to pick up our beautiful daughter and bring her home. My eyes are tearing now at the memory… so grateful for our family now complete with little Eliyana Bracha Nuhamin. God answered our prayers with blessing and joy. She is a light in our hearts and souls.
“When the righteous seek to settle in peace in this world, Satan comes to accuse them.” (Bereishit Rabbah 84:1)
Vayeshev – “Jacob settled in the land where his father had sojourned, the land of Canaan.” (Gen 37:1) There is such depth in this small opening sentence. The first part of the sentence is defined by the second. While Isaac sojourned in the promised land, megurei from the Hebrew root ger, a stranger, Jacob yashav, he settled, he made his home. Rashi points to a settling down not just of body but of mind. After years of exile and strife, Jacobs wants only to settle down quietly in the holy land to find fulfillment and closure. Following his troubled youth, his flight from his brother from his brother, servitude to his uncle, Jacob sought tranquility in mind and soul. Instead, Jacob’s story plunged him into further turmoil. His son Joseph was stolen and sold into slavery, killed in Jacob’s mind, and at the hands of his own brothers. Jacob’s story, which began in struggle with his own brother, circled back to that familiar pain.
We all seek to settle in peace in this world. Our greatest dream is to live our lives quietly, settled cozily in homes and jobs that are supportive and rewarding. To this Jewish tradition admonishes us: “Is it not enough for the righteous, what is prepared for them in the world to come, that they seek to settle in peace in this world?” (Rashi on Gen 37:1) Jacob, and we who yearn with Jacob, to live simply in peace, are mocked for our naivete. The world is a broken place. Our mere wanting of peace will not make it so.
Rabbinic literature praises yishuv ha-da’at, composure, peacefulness of mind, clarity, and cogency. It’s opposite is tiruf ha-da’at, to be of torn mind, bewildered, and confused. Our lives are always in process, trying to put the pieces in order, to find clarity, coherence. We think that one day we will find that peace and all will be smooth sailing from that point on. There is no such perfection. Aviva Zornberg puts it succinctly “No elegant composure can veil the organic disease of this world.” Yishuv and tiruf, the tension of composure and discomposure, is felt acutely by those who seek beauty and harmony and find the shock of reality.
Chaos, confusion, and brokenness are elements of the human experience. Our tradition’s admonishment to those who seek peace in this world might be harsh but appropriate. Are we seeking peace by begging off from reality, by dropping our responsibilities? This seems unfair. Why should those who are “good” suffer? Job hits the nail on the head when he bemoans the peace of the wicked who die in immaculate tranquility. (Job 21:23) The righteous struggle with the messiness of this world as they seek to make it better. It is their innate “goodness” that prevents them from looking away, prevents them from settling for their own corner of peace while those around them suffer.
My life as a working mom is anything but “peaceful.” I am allowed moments of transcendent beauty, in work, in family. But as the rollercoaster of life restarts itself I am reminded of Jacob, and the sages response to his quest for peace. “The day is short, the work is hard, the reward is great, and the master presses.” (Pirkei Avot 2:20)
My thanks to my teacher Aviva Zornberg whose writing (The Beginning of Desire) inspired this drash.
Rumain Brisbon, Michael Brown, Eric Gardner… My heart aches for their deaths. I grew up in a world where the police officer was my friend, someone who visited my primary school to talk about the right way to lock up my bicycle, who smiled and waved when I walked by. I don’t know what world I live in now, certainly not one of blind justice and trust. I see our civil liberties eroding quickly away. Safety and fear replace freedom and reason. In the 70s, 80s, and 90s, we seemed on track in our work to end race inequality. We seemed on track for each in our country to make a living wage, to be treated as a human being in their place of employment, their home, and on the streets. I thought with each generation life would get just a little bit better. Instead, this tremendous backslide to a world where torture and imprisonment without trial is acceptable in the name of fighting terror and national safety. Acceptable to beat or shoot an unarmed person, unless he’s white. We turn away, believing it could never happen to us. This is familiar to me. My family once thought it couldn’t happen to them… and one day the Nazis arrived and every freedom they had worked generations to gain was taken away overnight. Please know that every civil liberty lost by one is lost by us all. When a black man is harassed and physically assaulted by police, he is the canary in the mine, the first to suffer in what will kill us all.
I am proud of the demonstrators. Too often we feel so powerless, but they remind us that our future is our responsibility to shape. Each of us has the responsibility to bring about a better world. In the midst of these horrors I hold fast to the Jewish teachings of ahirat ha-yamim, the end of time, the messianic age. According to our tradition, the messiah will come when our world has achieved a degree of righteousness previously unknown. Our work is to continue the process, each generation, each individual doing their part to bring closer the time when war, violence, jealousy and greed cease to be. We seem to be losing ground on our path to hope.
“We do not know when the Messiah will come, nor whether he will be a charismatic human figure or is a symbol of the redemption of mankind from the evils of the world. Through the doctrine of a Messianic figure, Judaism teaches us that every individual human being must live as if he or she, individually, has the responsibility to bring about the messianic age. Beyond that, we echo the words of Maimonides based on the prophet Habakkuk (2:3) that though he may tarry, yet do we wait for him each day.” Emet ve-Emunah: Statement of Principles of Conservative Judaism
I spent Black Friday this year having a ball shopping. Treated myself to a babysitter and luxuriated in the freedom, the thrill of the find, and the high of the purchase. Interestingly, I spent the day at two used clothing stores, Once Upon a Child, and Fabulous Finds, here in Vestal. I was filled with the spirit of Bal Tashchit, the mitzvah that commands us not to waste.
I am not a Black Friday shopper. The wild consumerism of the day is a little frightening to me, as is my guilt at store workers forced to get up at 2am to open the doors before the crack of dawn. I am most saddened by the new trend of Black Friday sales that start on Thanksgiving Day itself. Thanksgiving has long been a secular Shabbat in America, where all but emergency workers are allowed a day of complete rest with family. We have allowed this beautiful tradition to die at the hands of corporate greed. We have so many “things” in our western lives. Why do we need to constantly search for that great new gadget or piece of clothing? A momentary high or to the fill emptiness within? In the end we fill only the pockets of the companies preying on our need and desire. We are their cattle, bred to work hard so that we may purchase to the point of debt.
While in Ethiopia, Tim and I visited a coffee farm. It was tiny, just a couple dozen trees and a single family farming by hand. They were incredibly poor, happy to take the very few dollars the tour guide offered. They lived in a small mud hut. When we arrived the wife came out to great us, then went back into the hut to get her husband. He emerged wearing the shirt she had just had on. I think it was their “best shirt,” a five dollar long sleeved tee we would purchase without a thought at Walmart. Normally, when we in the West are finished with our clothing, we donate them away and thousands of pounds of our used clothing is shipped to third world countries where it is sold. It destroys the local cloth industry. Very few in Ethiopia still wear the beautiful hand woven cloth of tradition. Such is modernity, it moves us forward. But we in the West have the luxury to look down the path, to choose. Are we replacing lifestyle, family, caring for our planet, caring for our neighbors, with “things?”
I can not bear the thought that my technological gadgets, clothing, or food, are made by workers an ocean away barely making money to subsist. I think of worker in China living in factory dormitories, barely seeing the sun. I think of children, babies really, working in cocoa fields, or fishing, for a few cents a day. Most of these “things” are shipped to the West, for our consumption, our need to purchase more and more things at the lowest price. What if we bought less, consumed less? What if we reused, shared, cycled up? How would our world change?
A culture of parents introduced me to a wonderful world of shared clothing, of passing things outgrown to fellow parents. Some who have shared with me barely know me. The culture is to pass it forward, knowing another parent somewhere will also pass to us. We share knowledge too: to the best used clothing stores, the best free places to entertain children in summer and winter. It is the spirit of Bal Tashchit. This Black Friday I took that spirit a step further. I filled my need for jeans a size smaller at a used clothing store. A first for me. I rejoice that this small step is a right one, one in the direction of caring for our planet and our fellow human beings.
We are blessed. Happy Thanksgiving.
Halloween is a interesting time. There has long been dialogue in the Jewish community about whether or not it is in keeping with Jewish values. I love the neighborhood quality to the day, the practice of families all congregating together outside their homes to visit each other and neighbors, adults smiling at the costumes and makeup of the children. The issue of the origin of the holiday, pagan, Christian, or sugar greed, is not relevant to most families today. It is a holiday of chocolate and make believe. However many parents no longer feel collecting candy from strangers is safe and often children trick or treat at malls or from selected friends and their trunks. The neighborhood joy seems to have been lost to the modern issues of safety.
I struggle with how to proceed with Halloween with my daughter. What is the message of halloween now? Getting free candy? The joy of letting loose for a day, the fun of costumes and candy? If there is a lesson that life is intended to be enjoyed, treasured, and shared, I can embrace that aspect of this secular holiday. If I can take it a step further to show her how much joy her happiness and presence can bring to others, by including a costumed trip to our neighborhood nursing home, even better. If I can moderate the giving of candy by purchasing chocolate treats free of slave labor, paying a little extra for the fair trade label, I can be proud of the message I am providing for my daughter.
This Friday, Eliyana and I will first visit our neighborhood nursing home at 5:00pm then attend TI Shabbat services at the JCC at 5:30pm. I invite my congregation, friends, and neighbors to join us. The rabbi will have fair trade chocolate to share with anyone in costume (of any age).
Just two days ago, a lone gunman shot and killed a guard near the Canadian Parliament buildings. I immediately felt for my family in Canada, and especially for my father and stepmother who live in Ottawa. I don’t think I fully appreciate the horror until I saw the pictures of of the members of parliament barricading themselves indoors for safety, chairs and desks piled against the exit. It brought everything back, and my heart beat more quickly. I thought immediately of the lone shooter who killed 13 at our American Civic Center here in Binghamton in 2009. I thought of those victims fear, their terror. I pray God bring comfort to the families of all victims of violence. There is such terrible darkness in the world. I am bewildered by it. I am overwhelmed.
Today I opened the news to find that Ebola has arrive in my home state. My heart goes out to the brave doctors and nurses who travel to Africa to fight this terrible disease. No one deserves to suffer from this illness, least of all those putting themselves on the line to help others. But the terror that stays with me, is that of the disease inching closer to my home, to my child. I am at a loss. Do I bubble wrap my family and stay home… or do I continue to live?
Thank goodness the rain finally let up today and we have a beautiful sunny fall day to celebrate in Binghamton. I don’t think my poor soul could take the grayness for one more day. I need the sun. I need it to remember the brightness and beauty in life. Rabbi Meir Shapiro of Lublin taught a similar lesson in relation to parashat Noach. A midrash explicates that during Noah’s flood, the sun, the moon and the stars ceased functioning. The entire earth was plunged into complete darkness. Afterward, God produced a magnificent rainbow across the sky, adding to the beauty and illumination of the sun. The rainbow is a covenant that God will never again destroy the earth. It is also a message for each of us on our personal journey. “Light can shine even after the darkest periods. No matter how “dark” things become, there is the possibility of the restoration of light, and even greater light than that which existed beforehand.” Within the destruction of the flood is a message of hope, even as things are at their darkest and we fall into despair, there is the promise of beauty and light. We have the potential to shine more brightly after we have come through the terrible darkness.
Rav Shapiro ties this to a Zoharic teaching that Noah was punished for his lack of hope. For his despair, the event became known to all generations as “Noah’s flood.” (Meh Noach – Isaiah 54:9) Noah never went out to his neighbors to try and convince them to repent. He was overwhelmed by their sin and aggression. He didn’t know what to do and so did nothing. For this, teaches the Zohar, he shares in the responsibility of the flood, tying his name to it forever. We each have a role to play in tikkun olam, in healing the world. None of us is released from it, not even when the world is at its darkest.
How do we as individuals deal with the acts of terror and horror perpetrated by our fellow human beings? Our most basic instincts are to collect everyone we love and hide from the world in our ark. Parasht Noah, with great kindness, teaches us to have hope. As dark as our days get, there is sun that will shine again, perhaps even more brightly than before. When we feel depleted we can hold on to the promise of the rainbow. This can give us strength and courage to be a part of the world, it’s repair and healing, to bring our own light to help, to give support, and to speak out about what is right and just.
I have been Rabbi of Temple Israel for eight years now and I care deeply about our community and the people within it. I work to be present for individuals in their pain and I feel a responsibility for the spirituality of our congregation. There are times when it is beyond my power to help, to solve, to fix…. and there are days when the sadness of these moments cling to me, a small dark cloud, sitting above my shoulders. There is the grief and loss I feel as people I care about pass away and the sorrow I feel in empathy for the loved ones they leave behind.
Grief can be all encompassing, can cast a shadow on the what should be days of light and happiness. What can we hold on to in these moments of grief, to anchor ourselves in life? How do we disperse the cloud that follows our days? How do we turn our memories of loved ones to blessing? How do we move forward?
We count blessings. We hold one to that which brings us joy. We remind ourselves about the people, the things, the activities, that bring light into our lives and we hold tight to them. We are patient and gentle with ourselves, and we understand that grief takes time.
When I was in high school, two of my classmates were killed in a car accident. We were in shock. It was hard to believe that we would never see their faces again, that their life, in all it’s young potential, had simply disappeared from the world. I remember staring at the empty desk of my classmate. The following Monday, my teacher completely rearranged the room, from desks in teams of four, to one large semi circle. We no longer stared at her empty chair.
When the twin towers came down 9-11 I was living in NYC. My world was in chaos. I could not wipe the image of the downtown survivors walking all day, covered in white soot, their only way to reach their Jersey homes, by foot. I cleaned. I ironed. I called friends and family. I put one foot in front of the next and took each day completed as a success.
The year I miscarried between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I took big breaths and I carried on. I did two baby namings that week. I buried myself in my work, in reaching out and helping others. And I cried. I held on to my husband and I cried.
Jewish tradition provides for us in our grief. For seven days we are excused from worldly concerns. We stay home from work and community comes to care for us. We cover our mirrors and are relieved from even worrying about brushing our hair or outward appearance. For thirty days we are excused from parties. We don’t have to put on a fake smile and pretend to rejoice. We are allowed our grief. For one year we say kaddish, and the community is bound to us, present for each repetition of the ancient prayer, present for our grief. At the end on one year, we erect the monument, the headstone, and we gather once more at our loves one’s grave in memory. With this ceremony we mark an end to our time of acute grief and we make the effort to remember more of the good and blessing in the one who is passed, than the pain of their loss.
Perhaps it is time that lessens the heaviness of our loss. Perhaps it is the rearranging of chairs physical and symbolic, the refusal to stare at emptiness. In our darkest moments all we can do is commit to breathing, to accomplishing the task of completing each day. We take the time we need to grieve, we cry, we stay busy, we reach out to help others, and we can stay connected to family, friends and community. We look for and hold tight to those particles of light in our lives that bring us joy. We forgive ourselves our guilt and give permission to our hearts to love.
Slowly, we move forward. This is good. Our hearts simply can not sustain the continued full time grief, it would break us completely. But at the end of each holiday, we give ourselves permission to return to those memories of pain. During yizkor we embrace all our memories, the sweet and the grief. In this moment, we don’t have to move forward. We stand still, we allow our sadness to encompass us once again, to cry, to hold tight to one another, to stare at the empty chair. Perhaps because we are allowed this window of grief we find the strength to gently close the door at its end. In this moment we have permission not to be strong, and perhaps that gives us strength in the days to come. When we close the ark and complete our yizkor, let us look for that which still carries the light and blessing of our loved ones in this world. Let us work to make their memories a blessing.
At the end of every Jewish wedding the bride and groom break a wineglass. The most popular of the meanings attributed is that we break the glass to remember the destruction of the Temple. The pain of that loss should be remembered always, even to the point of marring moments of great joy. While I understood the historical reasoning, I never felt the spiritual truth of this practice until today. Some losses we carry forward with us.
I am struggling these High Holidays. Over the past months I have tried to be present for others’ pain at the loss of our synagogue building while enthusiastic and positive about the strength of our community and our future. But today I can’t muster the strength. Today I feel the full weight of loss and grief. Perhaps it is the three funerals at which I officiated this week. Of course I pass every day the trucks busy at work this week pulling down the remains of our beautiful building, forming neat piles of metal and brick to be reclaimed and reused. And there is the strain of working through holidays without a private office or any of my rabbinic books and resources. But the final straw that has broken me today, is our sukkah.
I had planned a lovely kiddush followed by Torah study in our sukkah after tomorrow’s services. It can not be. We have all been working so incredibly hard to rebuild our synagogue, to make a our high holidays outside our home beautiful and meaningful. Today I came to roll our Torahs for sukkot services and make sure everything was in order. Finally I went outside to visit the JCC’s sukkah. The JCC has been incredible this last year. They welcomed us with open arms and do everything in their power to help us at every turn. They kindly offered to let us use their sukkah for the holiday. Alas I did not find out until today, erev sukkot, that the flat and regular route to the sukkah is inaccessible due to cement pouring in the new JCC playground. The alternate route is over a steep hill, impossible for our aging congregation. For the first time since I became Temple Israel’s rabbi, we will have no sukkah. I am heart broken.
I know that my heart hurts more for our lost synagogue building than for our sukkah. Still the symbolism of it gets to me. According to our tradition, the sukkah is symbolic of the impermanent huts the Israelites dwelt in while traveling through the desert. They had left slavery. They were in God’s presence, moving towards the promised land. A sukkah is a rickety impermanent structure, that must allow more sunshine through it’s organic roof of branches than shade, that must be free standing and that most often blows down in a good wind. But we build it each year to remind us not to rely on brick and mortar, to remember that God is the true strength in our lives. We look through the branches at night, see the stars, and remember God’s covenant to make Israel a great and numerous people. The sukkah reminds us that at our most vulnerable, God is with us. In our place of exile and homelessness, God is with us.
Perhaps this is why the loss of our sukkah hurts so deeply… perhaps this year more than any other, I needed the symbolism of our sukkah to remind me that our people are more than brick and mortar, that God is present in our moments of transience.
We need to mourn, and we need to find a way to put it aside and embrace this process with joy as a community. To capture that same joy of those who built before us, I believe we need a conversation about who we are as a congregation of people. What are our values, our priorities, our dreams and our gifts? I would like a congregational dialogue about our identity as a community, what makes us special, and what do we want to give back to the world around us?
In each generation, there have been tremendous obstacles presented to the Jewish community, and in each generation, we have prevailed. Why, because we were willing to find what was most core to our Jewish souls, and protect it as we change and moved forward. When the second Temple was destroyed, the Jews changed radically, developing prayer and synagogue ritual to replace animal sacrifice. We became for almost two thousand years a people without a homeland. And in each land we came to, and tried to make our own, we were met by avarice, pogroms, crusades, Spanish Inquisition, plague, the restrictions of the USSR, Ethiopia, and others who made us hide our Judaism to survive, the Shoah. We moved forward. We dug deep, found our core of identity, changed what we needed to, and we remained true to who we are as a Jewish community.
Now as our congregation is asked to move forward, to let go of that which has been our spiritual home for multiple generations, it is time to talk with each other about who we are as a community. How do we want to impact on the world with the gifts God has given us. If we rely on brick and mortar to hold us together, we miss the message of sukkot. Structures in the end are all impermanent. Judaism survives because we are a people.
So tomorrow I want to introduce my congregation to a new kind of sukkah, one which is built solely by the spirit of the people with the courage to lean on one another in the name of community. We need no lumber, so decorations. A minyan, sitting in conversation around a table. No walls, no ceiling. We are the structure. We are the sukkah, if we cast our sheltering presence over one another.
Once there was a powerful king who was so powerful that he managed to create the illusion of a palace with high walls and gates surrounding him. He then invited his subjects to come to visit him in his palace. Almost everyone who approached the palace was deterred by the fortress-like quality of the castle, the high brick walls and moats and gates. Only one subject — the king’s son—realized that the palace walls weren’t real—they were an illusion—and he could walk right through them and come right to the king.
This beautiful Hassidic story, told by the Baal Shem Tov, has much to teach us. There are walls that limit us in life. Some are placed before us by others, and some are of our own making. Some are real and some are merely illusion.
Our tradition offers us a means to move through the illusionary boundaries with which we bind ourselves: Tefillah, Tzedakah and Teshuva. Today on Yom Kippur, God does not ask for self flagellation. God offers us the opportunity to leave the distractions of life for 25 hours: food, business, the time spent on the personas we show the world, and look inwardly at ourselves… to find the courage and the perception to walk through illusory walls and make the life for which we were meant. Through prayer, acts of righteousness, and repentance, we grow as individuals, we adjust the patterns of our mind, we begin to see what impediments are mere illusion, and we move forward to the life of potential we seek.
Tonight I want to speak with you about Teshuva. The meaning of the Hebrew goes far beyond the simple translation, repentance. Teshuva means to turn, to change. Teshuva is the realization that we have the power to change ourselves, change even our perception of the world. Teshuva releases us from the set patterns that have limited what has always been.
I love the way churches use their billboards. I saw one once that read: “If you are headed in the wrong direction, God allows U-turns.” I think the Baal Shem Tov would have liked their billboard very much. It all begins with a turn, a step.
A Hasidic Rebbe once asked his students the following question: “How far do you have to travel to be on the other side of the world?” His students sat down and analyzed mathematical equations to find a possible answer. After a period of time they returned to the Rebbe and came up with possible solutions. He looked at all of them and said: “You are all incorrect. The answer is: Just one step. Turn around, and you’ll face the opposite direction.”
Teshuvah is often thought of as turning back from undesirable things – bad habits or patterns of behavior, broken relationships or interpersonal dynamics, spiritual apathy or distance, a feeling of God’s absence. But Teshuvah can be a turning towards — moving forward to our best and most fully actualized selves. With one step, we can change our direction, we can change our perception, walk through our limitations.
A young teacher in our community shared a fascinating article with me recently from the Huffington post. It discussed the psychology of two different mindsets: the fixed mindset and the growth mindset. The messages individuals receive in childhood push them to one perception or the other. In the fixed mindset the person believes he was born with certain gifts and certain limitations. His intelligence and skills are simply too limited for certain tasks and he gives up. In the growth mindset the person believes that the more he challenges himself, the more intelligence he gains. He values learning over looking smart and works hard at new challenges. He perseveres. The idea developed for parents and teachers is to encourage not just intelligence and skill, but to praise the child for their effort, for taking on challenging tasks, and persevering.
As I read this article, I became entranced by its connection to Teshuva. Yom Kippur is a gift, a time of meditation and seclusion within community in which we are invited to change our mindset. Yom Kippur whispers in every page of prayer: persevere, make a turn, take a step. In the space between the prayers we challenge our perceptions of our world as immovable, unchangeable. We work to see through the curtain of illusion. We grasp our own courage and strength and we realize we are not bound by what has always been. We reach deeply into ourselves to readjust our vision, our identity and we find our core, our beliefs, our potential. We take a step. We turn. We move forward.
How do we take that first step? How do we change our perception so that we see through the illusion of walls and limitations?
The Talmud offers this story as insight: In the north of Israel, in the second century, two men met on a narrow bridge that crossed a rushing stream. Simon of Lakish was the strongest, fiercest gladiator to ever fight in the arenas of Rome. Simon was an orphan born of a Jewish family taken by the Romans and raised to be a killer. He was in a hurry to get to his next contest. Across the bridge he rushed, bearing the tools of his brutal trade. At the center of the bridge, he met another man, a very different kind of champion.
Rabbi Yohanan was a small man with fine features and gentle eyes. The leader of the Jewish community in the land of Israel, he was renowned for his deep love of Torah. The rabbi wore no armor and carried no weapons.
Simon was in terrible hurry, so he demanded that the rabbi move aside and let him pass. But the rabbi would not budge. He shouted, “Move aside!” But the rabbi would not move. So he bellowed and stomped and reached for a weapon.
As the gladiator raised his sword, their eyes met. And something remarkable happened. Simon was accustomed to seeing fear and terror in the eyes of his adversaries. Not this time. This time, he saw something in the eyes of the rabbi he had never seen before –a man with absolutely no fear. He saw a man who knew exactly where he fit in God’s world, who knew exactly what he was sent into the world to do. He saw in the rabbi’s eyes a strength and power he had never seen in all his opponents, in all the battles, in all the arenas of Rome. The power of the rabbi’s eyes shook the gladiator to his soul. He stood for a long time staring, and then dropped his sword and all of his rage.
For his part, the rabbi saw something he didn’t expect. There was more to this gladiator than his fury. Beyond the rage and the violence the rabbi saw a ferocious power to love and deep longing to be loved. Behind the armor was a heart, a soft, human heart, a soul waiting to be touched, to be warmed.
The rabbi spoke softly to the gladiator, “My brother, where are you going in such a hurry? To kill or be killed in the service of Roman glory? My brother, there is another way, a better way.”
“There is no glory greater than Rome! Rome is eternal! I serve Caesar!” the gladiator repeated the oath he had sworn so many times.
“One day soon, Rome will be gone, its Caesars forgotten and all its arenas reduced to rubble,” explained the rabbi. “But the glory of God is forever. And you, my brother, are created in the image of God. You carry God’s light. Come and join a greater cause, my brother. Come and master God’s Torah!”
“I know only the arts of battle. How can I sit with a scholar like you?” the gladiator retorted with embarrassment.
“Your heart is stronger than your sword, and that is all God requires. Come, my brother,” answered the rabbi.
Perhaps it was the rabbi’s truth. Perhaps it was his voice. Perhaps it was that the rabbi was the very first person in his life to call him “brother.” The words broke through the gladiator’s armor and reached his heart. For the first time in his life, the gladiator began to cry. Tears covered his face and his sobs filled the valley. He dropped his weapons into the stream. He unbuckled and cast away his armor. He turned and followed the rabbi.
Simon became Rabbi Yohanan’s most devoted student, until in time, the gladiator too became a rabbi, the great Reish Lakish. He married the sister of Rabbi Yohanan and became his brother. They fought and wrestled over the words of Torah for the rest of their lives, as they led the Jewish people with love and with learning.
What does this story teach us? That knowing who we are, knowing where we fit in God’s world gives us the strength to move beyond any obstacle.
Our minds and hearts this high holiday season are understandably focused on the loss of our Temple Israel building and the visions of our new spiritual home. The illusion we are challenged to see through is that a synagogue is a thing of brick and mortar. Our bayit, our home, is one of kenesset, of meeting, of coming together. Beit Kenesset, the Hebrew for synagogue. We are a community of relationship. What makes our home one of spirit is the vision and work we do for the people within. We are in a time of Teshuva, of change, of turning to move forward. We have the opportunity, the gift, to let go of set perceptions and limitations and to allow our dreams to take us in new directions.
This morning as I sat on the couch with my cup of coffee, waiting to wake up, Eliyana amused herself by taking each item out of my purse one at a time and bringing them to me. She stopped only when she found my kippah. This she carefully placed on her head over and over again and then brought to me. I have never put a kippah on Eliyana’s head, so this act was wholly one of mimicking an action she has seen Mommy do many times. Of course, my heart melted… she was adorable. I became keenly aware that her Jewish identity would be formed not just in what we do together as a family, but in what she sees me do, as a rabbi, as her mother, and as a Jew, on a daily basis.
I have been singing the Shema to Eliyana at bedtime since I first brought her into my life. It has not been the hoped for ritual that marks her transition to sleep. She knows the prayer means I want her to go to sleep, and she has made a habit of sitting bolt upright when I begin singing. Sometimes, I snuck the shema in after she fell asleep, other times it was left behind as I experimented with different sleep rituals. Today, I think we may finally have a ritual in place that works, and includes the shema, huzzah!
Eliyana does not like to go to sleep at night. In desperation we have been driving her, transferring her to her crib, then transferring her to our bed when she wakes up in the middle of the night. Don’t judge, we are sleep deprived parents, and pretty grumpy at 3am. I knew she needed to learn the self soothing skills to put herself to sleep but have been putting it off until “after the holidays.” It came to a head Erev Rosh Hashanah when Eliyana simply woke up at 10, then 11, then 12, then refused to go back to sleep at all! She did this three times this week. My husband and I are exhausted. Time for a change. It’s the ten days after all. Teshuva, turning to the right path.
Last night I pulled the crib mattress onto the floor of Eliyana’s bedroom, turned out all the lights, and lay down on the mattress with her. Then I began the ritual that we do every night, though it hasn’t worked in a while… Goodnight Moon, Shema, and Had Gadya. Yes, Had Gadya, the song about the goat from Passover. It popped into my head one night when I was rocking her and she wouldn’t go to sleep and by the time I had sung it the tenth time through, she was asleep. So now it’s part of the ritual. The goat, the cat the dog, the stick, the fire, the water, the ox, the butcher, the angel and God.. all part of the ritual. Finally, I recited the story of how we came to be a family, how we flew to Ethiopia to find the daughter meant for us. Miracle of miracles, she fell asleep and stayed asleep in her own room all night. Baruch Hashem it will work just as well tonight, and tomorrow night, and onto the new big girl twin mattress I bought and lugged up the stairs this afternoon.
High Holidays are the busiest, most stressful time, in a rabbi’s year. This week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur would not have been my choice for sleep training. God had another plan, a plan to weave together my roles as rabbi, Jew, and mother. In the daily issue of bedtime, I found teshuvah. My expectations were turned on their head and I found a way. I may have less time and energy for cooking festive meals or deep introspection, but I am living the Torah of teshuvah this high holiday season. How could I not, with my beautiful daughter watching every move I make?