Blessing of the People – My words at LGBTQ Interfaith Service

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In the beginning, God created ADOM – a being in God’s image, formed from the clay of the earth, neither male nor female.  God hovered above Adom’s lifeless form, a cloud of light.  God breathed a ruach elohim, a divine breath, into Adom’s body. In that moment, the very essence of God’s light entered Adom’s soul, a tiny sliver of God, and Adom awoke to life.

This beautiful story is a traditional teaching in Judaism.  Later teachings explain how this first human came to be split in men and women.  I love this midrash because in the beginning God created a being with all potentials within it.  Into this being of all potential, God breathed life. God gave God’s own light into our souls.  To be in the image of God is to be all this potential before our final form emerges.

As a Jew, I have questioned God -Why this disease?  Why this waste of life?  Why this tragedy? Why me?  But I have never questioned the beauty of God’s creation.  In my very soul I know the truth… we are each here because the beauty of who we are reflects God’s divinity.  Each of us is unique, each with a role to play.  To remove any of us would destroy the picture of God’s creation.  To become our full selves, some of us must face terrifying prejudice.  Some of us must transform our outer shells to reveal that within us which longs to be free.  When we embrace our true selves, we embrace that light of God that sits in our souls.  Our task is to find and nourish the gifts God has given us, to live our lives fully, and to help those around us do the same.

I am the granddaughter of a holocaust survivor.  I know the evil that ravages in the guise of religion, of civility, of “social good.”  These are the masks worn to bully and spread hate.  All that evil needs to succeed is for good people to do nothing.  And so I am honored to be here tonight, as a rabbi, as a Jew, as a woman, and as a mother, to commit as an ally for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer rights.  We are the children of God, made in God’s image.  Who is mere man to question God’s wisdom?

Our lives are made of struggle and challenge, trying to find our path in life, trying to connect with God’s light.  A Jewish teaching recounts: For nine months an angel of God sat with us in the womb, a divine lamp shining, we studied all the wisdom of the world.  In the moment of birth, the angel reached forward and touched us just above our lips, leaving an indentation, and we forget everything we have learned.  We spend our lives studying, reaching for that divine learning that was once ours.  Our lives are ones of transformation, like the caterpillar into the butterfly.  This is God’s light within.

As a parent, I want my child to be all that she is meant to be, for all her potential to be brought into the light.  The challenge for my husband and I is to support her and refrain from building boundaries that hinder her from finding her true self… to nourish that tzil of God’s light within her soul that guides her to fulfill her unique role in creation.  We don’t know where her path will take her, but we know she will be fabulous.

At the time that equal marriage rights in America were first exploding in the media, my husband and I were on a waiting list to adopt.  We had been through years of fertility treatment torture.  We were volunteering at a home for severely neglected and abused children.  The biblical quotes of hatred and judgement spouted against gays and lesbians who wanted to marry and have families made no sense to us.  We were watching a nine year old simmer and explode after the abuse of his straight parents.  We were witness to a child with permanent brain damage after neglect from her straight parents.  A man and a woman do not make a family.  Love, respect and care make a family.

Martin Buber, a Jewish philosopher and theologian, taught that we can treat people as “it” or we can treat people as “thou.”  We can interact with others as “it,” as though they are mere objects, ignore a cashier while we talk on a cell phone, distance our emotions from those in need because they are not like us, float past them without interest or connection.  Or we can interact with our fellow human beings in an “I-Thou” relationship.  This is a relationship of deep mutual respect… of seeking to understand the other, of being present for them and truly seeing them.  In this relationship, the power of the connection and respect between these two people invites God into the relationship.  This is our challenge in life: to seek “I-Thou” relationships with others… to find ways to understand our fellow human being, and through this mutual respect to bring God into our lives.

Judaism has a tradition of reciting blessings throughout the day to remember God’s hand in all of creation.  There is blessing for seeing a creature or person of exceptional beauty: Baruch atah adonai eloheinu melech ha-olam sh-kacha lo ba-olam.  Blessed are you God who has made this in your universe.  There is a blessing for seeing that which is unique: Baruch atah adonai eloheinu melech ha-olam m’shaneh ha-briyot.  Blessed are you God who makes creatures different.  We all carry God’s light.  Our challenge is to do the work needed to let it shine illuminating God’s world, and igniting the light in others souls.  Deep respect for others while looking inward at our own growth is God’s path.

I will end my thoughts here tonight with a traditional Jewish blessing given by God to the people of Israel in the desert and said by parents to their children every sabbath:

Yevhārēkh-khā Adhōnāy veyishmerēkhā
May God bless you and keep you.
Yāʾēr Adhōnāy pānāv ēlekhā viḥunnékkā
May God deal kindly and graciously with you.
Yissā Adhōnāy pānāv ēlekhā viyāsēm lekhā shālōm
May God bestow [divine] favor upon you and grant you peace.
(Numbers 6:22-27)

 

a gun in my home

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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.

She Sleeps

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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”

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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.

dream that was meant to be

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Looking down at my beautiful daughter in my arms, I sometimes wonder what on earth took me so long.  Bringing her into our lives was a long journey that did not begin with agency and governmental red tape, but with a dream I was afraid to let die.  The decision to end our efforts with infertility treatments, though they were slowly killing my husband and me, was incredibly difficult.

I don’t think I actually yearned for a biological child in the beginning.  At my age, I knew it was a long shot.  We talked of adoption before we ever visited a fertility specialist.  Then, with the introduction of a powerful drug to my system, I got pregnant.  Oh the joy of that time, brief as it was, and the devastation and loss in that miscarriage.  I desperately wanted to recapture the joy and hopefulness of carrying our child and so I tried again and again, with stronger and stronger drugs.  I chased the dream.  I cried.  I tortured myself with guilt. Something must be wrong with me physically, or spiritually, or emotionally…  I knew I must have done something terrible and this was my punishment.  I was sure God had deserted me.  I sacrificed my body to surgeries, tests, medications, and scrutiny by professionals, friends, and family.  I cried.

It came to a head when the side effects of the drug had me in such excruciating pain that I was sedated with heavy narcotics.  “Don’t worry,” said my doctor, “the narcotics won’t affect the fetus at this stage.”  That was it for my husband.  He was done.  Of course I did not get pregnant… who would under those circumstances?  Still, it took longer for me to let go of the dream.  I had built it up to such immensity in my mind and soul. And then I was angry.  I was angry for a long time, at God, at the world, and at myself most of all.

I was afraid to adopt.  I was terrified of imposing my guilt and grief onto an innocent child. I had a notion that I had to heal completely before adopting so as to protect our child to be.  My rabbi and mentor of many years, with the help of God, put me in touch with another family who had been through our journey and more.  Their story of pain and grief horrified me and helped bring me to my senses.   I will never forget one particular conversation with my new friends.  I asked them how they let go of the dream of a biological child.  They replied that they hadn’t.  There was still grief, but it lessened with each joyous moment that filled their lives once they adopted their child.  We applied to adopt.

Then we waited, and did paperwork, and waited and more paperwork and waited some more… This was followed by paperwork, waiting and more paperwork.  Finally we were matched to a beautiful little girl in Ethiopia. For Tim, the bond to Eliyana was absolutely immediate, from the moment he saw her picture, from the instant he held her in his arms.  He stared at her little feet. He sang her funny songs. He gurgled into her sweet face.

My bond was not complete until we were able to bring her home with us from the orphanage (a difficult month later).  I remember holding Eliyana in my arms, rocking her to sleep, and my whole body filling with warmth and pure joy.  In every smile, hug, giggle, and cuddle I marveled at how wonderful she was and at our luck in receiving her into our lives.  I feel so blessed in the path, difficult as it was, that brought us Eliyana. She is more perfect than we ever deserved.

The first time I sang Eliyana the Shema, while putting her to sleep, her eyes popped wide open and she stared, giggling and smiling, into my face as I sang.  I felt God.  But more than that…  I felt Eliyana.  Her presence overwhelmed me.

Eliyana takes joy in everything.  She wakes up laughing! She dances to music only she can hear and her enticing smile invites you to join in.  She loves to cuddle and will join in singing with you, albeit using her own words. She loves people, all people.  She lights up to see them. She has an inner strength and a self reliance that allows her to entertain herself happily with blocks or nesting cups, or joy of joy, eating a board book.  Every day I look at her and can’t think what I could have done in life to deserve such a sweet beautiful treasure.

After I began writing about this journey, people started to contact me about their own difficulties with infertility. I can’t tell them to stop. I can’t advise adoption. It is an incredibly difficult process and the decision very personal.

But for Tim and me, Eliyana is our Beshert. This is the family we were meant to be. Eliyana is our dream. We thank God for the journey that brought her to us. We feel blessed every day.

My thanks to Jewish Women’s Archive for republishing this piece in honor of Mother’s Day 2015.

Hagar – Voice of Women

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In my synagogue we add Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah to our Amida prayer when we call on the memory of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  I have never been quite comfortable with this.  If, in our reformation of the prayers, we seek to insert women’s voices, why do we leave out Bilha and Zilpa?  Are they not also mothers of the twelve tribes of Israel?  The answer, of course, is that they were not wives, but mere concubines, slaves, forced to bear children for their masters.  As a woman, how can I be comfortable when my sister is categorized as a mere instrument, a slave for sex and childbearing?  These women are voiceless, invisible.

Perhaps this is why I am so moved by the beautiful voice of Malala Yousafzai, the little girl who was shot by the Taliban for daring to go to school.  She is Lech Lecha, a brave soul, who left everything she knows, her homeland, to speak out on what is right.  Born and raised in the small town of Swat, Pakistan, Malala spoke out against the Talliban’s oppressive regime against women, most notably not allowing girls to attend school.  She went to school anyway, even after a Talliban death threat.  A Talliban soldier climbed on the school bus one day and shot her in the head, leaving her for dead.  But she didn’t die.  Rushed to a Brittish hospital, she recovered, and spoke out.  She has lost her home, but not her voice. Malala has become the voice against violence, and the oppression of women.

I am struck by her words over and over again as I watch her in documentaries and television interviews.  Malala is inspiring.  She says she does not want to live like an illiterate person in a walled compound and only deliver children.  She believes in the power of education.  I am guided by her gentle words back to lech lecha, this time not to Abraham, but to Hagar.

Hagar is the Torah’s first concubine, the first who has no voice.  She is the first woman to be ordered into a man’s bed, to bear his child yet have no wifely rights, to be driven out first by harsh treatment and then by her masters when her presence became unpleasant for them.  Hagar‘s voice is trampled and pushed aside in our rabbinic texts.

One rabbinic midrash, with the goal of saving Abraham’s honor, claims that Hagar was Sarah’s property, part of her marital dowry, and therefore Abraham could only sit back in silence at Sarah’s treatment of her. Another midrash defends Sarah’s treatment of Hagar, claiming she was only saving Isaac from Ishmael’s abusive treatment.

In one extraordinary midrash, the rabbis suggest Hagar was an Egyptian princess.  When Abraham and Sarah entered Egypt, Abraham told people Sarah was his sister.  The Pharaoh, impressed by Sarah’s beauty, took her for a wife, and gave Abraham many gifts in exchange.  When God spoke to Pharaoh in a dream, Pharaoh frightened and awed, returned Sarah to Abraham, with more gifts including his daughter saying, “Better she should be a slave in the household of the people of such a mighty God, than a princess of Egypt.”   The midrash tells us , “Even Pharaoh recognized the greatness of the Israelite God, for he gave Sarah his daughter as handmaid.” Poor voiceless Hagar exists only to symbolize Israel’s chosenness over other nations.

It is time Hagar reclaimed her voice.  This is the woman who in spite of her enslavement and mistreatment, spoke with God, and mothered a nation.  Hagar is the symbol for all oppressed women. She is the woman living in the regime where women have no voice and are treated as chattel. She is the prepubescent girl who through no fault of her own finds herself sold into sex slavery by a family member.  She is the women who suffers sexual abuse at the hand of the caregiver who was supposed to protect her. She is the single mother who because of the hand of fate finds herself alone and ostracized by respectable married women. She is the freed slave, still bearing the burden of her trauma.(1)

In this difficult time, when we can look the other way as women are oppressed, to say they are far away, they are of another culture, another religion, I choose to hear Hagar, Bihah, Zilpah and others.  I choose to to see that they are my sisters and that my freedom gifted to me by luck or by grace of God, can be taken away in an instant.  Their freedom is my freedom.  Our voices should rise together.  I pray that one day education and freedom are available to all God’s children.

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(1) Hagar: a hero for women oppressed and invisible by Shannon Polk

In Defense of Family

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I know a little girl who lives in an institution

she has brain damage

her parents didn’t notice her ear infection

until it was too late.

I know a little boy who rarely smiles

he was forgotten, neglected

left to beg for food from neighbors.

I know a son who yearns for his father

4 foster homes, 3 diagnoses, 2 social workers

not his problem, she was a slut, could be anybody’s…

The children bear the scars

while we argue the definition of family.

two men, two women,

one of each?

Love, care, patience, kindness

make a family.

We made a world where children are bought and sold

neglected, starved, beaten

drugged and used for fodder in our wars…

God forgive us. We worry that a man loves a man…

Where is our righteous indignation that in a nation of plenty children go hungry?

Today, a step in the right direction

in the defense of marriage

in the defense of family

Time to get our priorities straight.

 

 

Humbled and Grateful

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My husband, Tim, and I volunteer at the Children’s Home, a modern orphanage for children deeply wounded and damaged. There are no magic words of comfort for these children who have been terrorized, neglected and hurt.  Their’s is a hard childhood.  We were very impressed by the work done at the home and volunteered.  We were paired with a little boy who didn’t smile the first two times we visited with him.  Only through a game of “wall ball” did we come to know his laugh and smile.  Not my favorite sport but Tim quickly became adept.

Orientation at the home was a sobering experience.  What stayed with me most was the often repeated instruction to “never take the child to our home.”  A social worker explained that as modest as Tim and I find our comfy two bedroom apartment, it is a sea of plenty to this child who has nothing. Seeing it can only leave him angry and hurt that we can’t swoop down and save him.  I, who am surrounded by those who own houses, had never thought of my apartment in these terms and found myself overwhelmed by emotion.  I have so much.  I am humbled and rendered grateful by my plenty.

In synagogues around the world this week, Jews will read the story of Moses demanding water from a stone in the desert.  I am reminded, as rains fall on Binghamton this week, of the very essence of our plenty.  Our gardens are lush and farmers happy while in other parts of the world lack of water and agricultural hardship are a daily part of life.  What incredible luxury: I open a faucet in my home and beautiful clean water flows from it.  I am humbled and grateful.

We learn in a midrash: “The words of the Torah are likened to water, just as water is not kept in silver or gold vessels, but the simplest clay, so Torah is retained by those who are simple.” (Shir Hashirim Rabbah 1:19)  Sometimes we feel overwhelmed by the ambitions to wealth and greatness set in the culture around us.  The truth is as clear as clean water.  Torah is learned when life is simplified.  We are blessed with plenty.  I am filled with this knowledge when I make my life simple, when I stop for shabbat, when I practice meditation and prayer, and when I reach out a hand to those in need. These center my life and I can see clearly.

Blessed are you God who restores my soul to me each morning, who makes miracles every day, who causes rain to fall from the sky, trees to grow and blossom, who gives me the will and opportunity to help those around me, and to bring laughter and smiles to those who are sad.  I am humbled and grateful.   

Treating Spiritual Pain

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As a Rabbi I treat Spiritual Pain

Recently I taught a class to our teenagers on Bikkur Cholim, the mitzvah of visiting the sick.   Our Talmud teaches us that with each visit to the ill we remove one sixtieth of their pain and suffering.  Often my visits to congregants in the hospital are short, a few minutes of talk and prayer to let the person know they are cared for, that an entire community, their rabbi and God are with them at this difficult time.  At times these visits stretch into hours.  When I am the only visitor, my presence helps with emotional distress and I add some cheer to a difficult day.

The misheberach prayer of healing I sing and the words of God I share give comfort.   I often sit with family members, helping with halakhic questions or issues of spirit and care.  Caring, company and theology are important but there is something more to my role.

There are times when I am called to treat a spirit, a soul in deep pain.  This is more than bikkur cholim.  It is a form of pastoral care that goes to the core of why I am a rabbi.  When I reach out to a soul in pain, offering the comfort of my own heart and thousands of years of Jewish tradition I truly fulfill my calling.

I was visiting a congregant one day.  From across the hall I heard a quiet but repeated “Help me. Help me.”  This is not unusual in nursing homes where the elderly are often confused and frightened.   The nurse looked in on the woman then left and the calling continued.  I felt she was calling me and moved toward the soul in need.  She was 98, a tiny little woman of skin and bones.  I bent down next to her face and said “I am Rabbi Tziona Szajman.  I’m here.  I’m going to pray with you.  I prayed and her face relaxed from its grief.  As my prayer ended she reached out and took my hand, held it tightly to her face and found peace.  I prayed again holding her hand and telling her she was not alone. God is with you.  I prayed for her to take comfort in God’s presence, for God to help her through the difficult night and days ahead.  As I prayed, she smiled and held tight to my hand, popping open a wary eye every few minutes to make sure I was still there.  It was a difficult room to leave but I prayed that the shekhinah, God’s presence on earth, be with her through the night and I returned home.

As a Rabbi I treat spiritual pain.  People reach out to me, sometimes without even knowing it. I know I am in the right place at the right time and I thank God that I can be there to help.

Published in The Reporter on February 15th, 2013

The Meaning of Prayer

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What is the intrinsic value of prayer?  My teachers at the Jewish Theological Seminary taught me that when I pray I talk to God and that when I study God talks to me.  It is a beautiful piece of midrash that I have used in past years to open the Shabbat Torah service.  Unfortunately, it fails completely to give an answer to the question of the meaningfulness of a set order of prayers every day.  If prayer is my opportunity to speak to God, why not use my own words, in my own time, alone?  After many years of soul searching and challenging my teachers with a great many questions I have come to a new understanding of Jewish prayer.  Prayer is a time when I commune with God.   For me, communing with God encompasses all of Jewish history, Jewish culture, Jewish law and the breadth of Jewish community.  When I pray, I consciously allow a space in myself to open up and interflow with God, with those around me, with those who came before me, and those who will come after me.  Sometimes I open up because I am moved by a piece of poetry in the liturgy, a particular phrase in English or Hebrew that I love, or has newly caught my eye.  Sometimes I open up because the music moves me and I can imagine the melody carrying my words to heaven.  Sometimes I open up because I feel warmth and connection to the people in the room with me.  And sometimes I open up because the room itself in its artistry has moved me.  In this opening, I feel connected to God and Judaism and a certain part of my own soul.

I never worry about the meaning of each individual word I pray, or about staying on the same page all the time as the person leading services.  I never imagine God sitting on a large golden throne listening to my words or judging the quality of my deliverance.  I imagine God is busy with other matters.   I also don’t worry about communing with God each and every time I pray.  Prayer is not a performance, it is not measured or weighed.  Sometimes I “hit it” and sometimes I don’t, and these are meaningful too, for without the practice, I would never achieve the feeling of being in God’s presence.  The intrinsic value in prayer is that it is an exercise.  Prayer excercises the soul.  It is the rhythm and consistency of practicing prayer that bring us closer to God.

I have always been intrigued by meditation.  I took a class once with Rabbi Alan Lew who has a Jewish meditation center in California.  I was fascinated to learn that MRIs showed similar activity in the brain in both meditation and Jewish prayer.  But here’s the punchline:  it was not in the moments that the daveners was fully concentrating that his brain paralleled meditation.  The daveners minds would often wander and it was in the moments that they pulled their attention back to their prayers, that their brains entered a meditative state.  This is fabulous news for everyone whose mind has ever wandered during services, yes, that’s ALL of us.   Everytime we get distracted or find ourselves accidentally forming grocery lists in our minds, we can rest assured that God knows this is part of the process, that it’s intentional, and as we pull our minds back to the siddur in front of us, and refocus on the prayers our rabbis wrote hundreds of years ago, we can take comfort in moving closer to God’s presence.

For me, there are two spaces which help me in commune with God:  the outdoors and the beauty of God’s creation, and the synagogue and beauty of praying in a minyan.   There are also two places I enjoy physical exercise, outdoors, and in a gym surrounded by the energy of fellow excercisers.  When I look for a gym, I look for a particular energy, and energy in the people there, that will push me in my own workouts.  I find a similar theory works in choosing a synagogue.  We choose places that feel right.  The energy of those praying around us will lift us in our own prayers.  This is why we pray in a minyan, in a community.

Knowledge of Hebrew is an important part of traditional prayer and I would encourage anyone interested in improving their Hebrew to seek a havruta (study partner) or a teacher (I am always delighted to work one on one with people).  However it is possible to have a full and happy prayer life without understanding the Hebrew of the words we pray.  You should not feel held back by Hebrew.  Embrace the melodies, the sounds of the words you like, the English translations, the community of people you pray with.  Be patient with yourself, the meaning will come and it will be far deeper that mere translation.  It will be a meaning beyond words, a meaning of listening and repeating the sounds of your ancestors, the music of your generation, in the place made holy by your community.

The intrinsic value of prayer is that it changes me.  It is a time I set aside to talk to myself and in that conversation I open myself to God, to Judaism, to deeper levels of life.  The traditional liturgy brings me into contact with Jews past, present and future and their belief lifts me in my own journey, as does the warmth of the minyan around me.  My favorite service at Temple Israel is the Friday morning minyan.  Sometimes we have ten people and sometimes we don’t.  It doesn’t matter.  On Friday mornings I rise early and instead of the gym, I head to synagogue.  There I silently wrap myself in my grandfather’s tefillin, whispering the age old prayers, as those around me also gather themselves into tallitot and tefillin.  It is a no frills service of 20 minutes.  Yet the earliness of the morning, the antiquity of the tefillin, the quiet of the building, bind us together each Friday as we join in shacharit prayers.  The bagels afterward are nice, but it is the prayer, the time set apart, even the space of the chapel, that bind me to these beautiful people and this service.  This service lifts me up.  It sets the tone for my day and for my Sabbath.  I begin Friday feeling like I have started on the right foot, that I’m already ahead on my “to do” list.  I begin my day a little closer to God.

 

Be’Ha’alotcha -God’s Divine Light is the Human Soul

A beautiful midrash describes creation:  When God formed Adam, the first human,  thousands of spirits tried to enter into Adam’s lifeless body but could not.  God then hovered above Adam’s body, like a cloud, and breathed a ruach elohim into his mouth and nostrils.  A divine light entered into Adam and became his soul.

Jewish tradition teaches that there is an essence of God’s divinity in all that which was created, the rocks, the rivers, the fish, the birds, and the trees.  But the Torah only gives credit to human beings for being created in God’s image. The vessel God created to be the human being, to hold that tzlil, droplet of God’s light, is unique.  We have choice.  We have intellect.  We have a kindness of heart that elevates us beyond mere instinct and survival.  We as human beings have been given the divine role within creation to be the lamps and lamp lighters in God’s gardenh.

Parashat be’ha’alotcha opens with God’s instruction to Aaron to “raise light” in the lamps of the menorah in the Sanctuary and is echoed in our Haftarah, Zechariah.  God instructs that  “the seven lamps [in the Tabernacle] give light toward the face of the menorah.”  There is a kabbalistic teaching that this menorah of light is in fact the human soul, which reaches out in seven branches towards heaven. The mystical interpretation rests on Proverbs 20:27 which teaches נֵר יְיְ  נִשְׁמַת אָדָם חֹפֵשׂ כָּל-חַדְרֵי-בָטֶן “The lamp of God is the soul of man, searching all the inward parts.”

The soul of man is a lamp of God whose purpose in life is to illuminate the world with divine light  All aspects of the mishkan are symbolic in Jewish mysticism of the relationship between the physicality of this world and building on that structure to climb to the greater truth just outside this world. God provides us with the physical “fuel” that generates Divine light — the Torah and its commandments, mitzvot.  We are the lamps within the structure of the mishkan. We carry God’s light both to illuminate and to be lamplighters for others.

נֵר יְיְ  נִשְׁמַת אָדָם חֹפֵשׂ כָּל-חַדְרֵי-בָטֶן   This sentence stays with me. God’s light is within our souls, and we search inwardly.  The word in the Hebrew for this inward direction is בָטֶן, belly button.  What is the belly button?  It is a point of connection.  In Jewish tradition Jerusalem is the navel of the world, the point at which the world grew and was nourished from God.  When we think of the human body, the navel is the source of deep connection to another human being. The bell button is a symbol of utter dependance on another to provide nourishment and protection.  As we are born, we grow into independence. That independence is actualized in our souls which have free choice, free will to act to make our lives our own.  God gifted us with the divine spark of life, and it is ours, to use as we wish.  But it can still be a point of connection, to God, and to our fellow human beings.

Human beings have been called the caretakers in God’s world.  We have been called God’s partners in creation.  To be God’s lamps on earth, is to carry the responsibility for bringing light into darkness.  “The earth was unformed and void and God said “let there be light”.  This refers to acts of righteousness.” (Gen Rabbah 2:5)  Judaism has a unique vision of humanity’s role.  Our task is to reach out to God while keeping our feet firmly planted on earth, much like the lampstand, the menorah, described in our Torah.  We stay connected to the earth through our tradition’s commitment to the mitzvot.  Every daily activity is to be mindful, the taking of food is partnered with a blessing, the sight of a waterfall or beautiful person, another blessing.  It roots us to the world around us, to our neighbors and community. As our roots connect to others through mitzvot, acts of caring, acts of communal responsibility, our branches rise upward toward heaven.  The light of our lamp reaches out to touch and ignite the lamp of another, and the finds God’s illumination.  What the menorah of our text teaches us is that we do not stand alone,  Our soul, the lamp of God shines in its connection to our fellow human being

My daughter falls asleep at night snuggled up beside me in her bed.  She fights against sleep until the last moment, rolling around, telling stories, asking for toys.  I have great sympathy for her: There is fear in giving control up to sleep.  It is why we sing the Shema as the last words on our lips at night.  Finally the moment comes when she moves closer towards me, her breathing changes and her body relaxes into mine.  She puts herself in my arms, physically and symbolically, trusting in me to protect her as she gives up control.  It is a time that I look forward to each night: that second she feels absolute trust in me, and lets go.  I am filled with gratitude for my blessings in this moment as I connect to my daughter at this deep level of trust and my awareness that God fills the room.

Martin Buber described this lamplighting, this connecting of one’s inner light with the light of another, as “I-Thou.”  When we interact with another person at the deepest level of respect and trust, we create a line of connection that then expands to bring God as a third line into the relationship.  נֵר יְיְ  נִשְׁמַת אָדָם חֹפֵשׂ כָּל-חַדְרֵי-בָטֶן  God’s lamp is the human soul…  as it searches from within for connection…  We illuminate the world with the light God gifted to each of us as we connect to one another through acts of trust, of kindness, of giving, and care.  As we spread this light, we become God’s lamplighters, sparking the divine light in others so that they too illuminate the world.

 

Challenging Our Family Story

My daughter is an adorable outgoing two year old who loves connecting with new people in books stores, cafes, and parks.  Sometimes these new people ask me “where is she from?”  I always hold back the response I want to give “from God, like every child.”  These people are not rude or racist.  They are simply curious.  Yet there is an insensitivity to the question and I am just now putting my finger on what it is.  They assume that my daughter’s story is mine to tell.  I’m starting to understand my own hesitancy in answering.  There is an issue of privacy, not of mine, but of my daughter’s.  It’s her story too and she is not yet at a stage where she can decide what and with whom she wants to share.

The fact that our daughter is black and my husband and I are white is a sign for people that there is a “story” there.  Human beings are curious by nature.  Some questions are curtailed by social mores on privacy.  It seems that adoption is not.  I have heard parents compare the question of their child’s “origin” to asking a stranger if she gave girth naturally, with epidural, or by c-section.  It’s a great simile, clearly enunciating a common feeling of invaded privacy among adoptive families.

The truth is, our family story is one in constant flux and change.  I don’t know what answer to give when asked in that coffee shop or park.  A year and a half ago I created  a story of “how we became a family” as part of Eliyana’s sleep time ritual. I whispered it to her every night, snuggled in the dark, along with a song, a book, and the Shema prayer.  That story no longer feels right or true. The underlying theme was of two people who couldn’t have a biological child, were matched with a beautiful baby, and became a forever family.  There’s a fabulous bit about the airplane ride to and from Ethiopia, with accompanying engine sound effects, but most of the story is obsolete. I think it was more a story of transition. from infertility to parenthood.  It was never really our family story.  The family story I created today is about three souls born continents apart who came together to be the family we were always meant to be.  I kept the plane and the sound effects.  It’s Eliyana’s favorite part.

One day it will be up to Eliyana to decide how to handle people’s inquisitiveness.  I hope I can model for her pride, confidence, and compassion as she reaches for answers.  She is only now on the cusp of language.  I can’t wait to see what she has to say.  Most of all, I wonder how our family story will evolve as Eliyana enters as one of its narrators.  Will it be the same each night, or will there be changes according to how our day went?  Will she even want to tell the story?  How will it evolve as she grows older?  I don’t know the answer to any of these questions.  I do hope we keep the night time snuggle whispering part of the family story in the dark of bedtime… It’s my favorite part.

 

Family Story – For Eliyana at Bedtime

Once upon a time, before Mommy was called Mommy, and before Daddy was called Daddy… We were just two people.  We loved each other very much… but we knew our family wasn’t complete, not yet.   We yearned for you.  We looked for you.  We prayed and hoped and talked about you.  Our hearts pulled us toward you….  It was hard because we waited a long time for you.  But finally the day came, a telephone call, telling us you were waiting to meet us.  We got on a plane and flew to Ethiopia.  You were a little baby, with a big smile and sparkling eyes and you liked to take our hats off our heads.  We felt so happy. Daddy didn’t want to stop holding you.  He sang you lots of songs.  Mommy told you stories and giggled with you.  Finally we all got on a big plane, with a big engine, that went puh puh, puh, and you went puh, puh, puh too… all the way home.  We gave you a special name: Eliyana – God answered us,  Bracha after mommy’s grandfather, meaning blessing, and Nuhamin, your Ethiopia name.  Eliyana Bracha Nuhamin –And you call us Mommy and Daddy.  We love you very much and we are a family forever.

Naso – Preparing the Way for God’s Blessing

The Baal Shem Tov, founder of Chasidism, was once visiting a village. The people clamored for him to bless them. The excitement was palpable as everyone gathered together. They looked up to him and waited. But the Baal Shem Tov stood before them with his head bowed, silent. The people waited. He was silent. People became restless; “Bless us!” someone called out. Still, there was silence. Then the Baal Shem Tov lifted his head and said, “I cannot bless you. Please, bless me. Bless me with your deeds and your lives.”

What is a blessing? How do we bless each other and how do we enter into God’s blessing? When we ask for God’s blessing we are asking God to infuse our lives with holiness, to be present with us, to stand next to us, to help us through our journey of life. When we ask a fellow human being for blessing, are we asking for the same? The most famous of the Torah’s blessings is in this week’s parashah, the priestly blessing of the Cohanim.

The Eternal One spoke to Moses:
Speak to Aaron and his sons:
“Thus shall you bless the people of Israel. Say to them:
Yevhārēkh-khā Adhōnāy veyishmerēkhā
God bless you and keep you.
Yāʾēr Adhōnāy pānāw ēlekhā viḥunnékkā
God deal kindly and graciously with you.
Yissā Adhōnāy pānāw ēlekhā viyāsēm lekhā shālōm
God bestow [divine] favor upon you and grant you peace.”
Thus they shall link My name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them.
(Numbers 6:22-27)

We say this blessing at the end of every Shabbat Musaf Amida, and in some congregations today, it is still recited by the Cohanim, their faces covered, their fingers splayed into the ancient shin. The language of the Torah is confusing, the beginning of the passage has God tell the Cohanim to bless the people while the end of the passage concludes that it is God who blesses the people. Our tradition holds that this is not the Cohanim’s personal blessing to bestow, they are acting as God’s vessels, passing God’s blessing to the people, this is why the Cohanim cover their faces with their tallitot. And yet, the Cohanim serve a role… the people have a role in blessing each other. We have many instances of people blessing other people in our Torah –Isaac’s blessing to his sons, Balak’s blessing of the people, and in our liturgy– the parents Shabbat blessing of their children.

There is a partnership, a cooperation between humanity and God that is perhaps unique to Jewish theology. For not only do we ask for God’s blessing, we offer blessing on our actions throughout the day, waking, eating, seeing a rainbow… offering praise to God, sending blessing heavenward. It is a partnership that has been compared by the rabbis to man’s preparing the ground for seeds while God offers the rain and sunshine. The Talmud offers this story: (Shabbat 89a):

When Moses ascended on high he found God adorning the letters of the Torah with crowns. God said to Moses: Is it not customary in your town to say “Shalom” –wish a person peace and hello? Moses answered: Does a slave greet his master so? God answered him: You should at any rate have given me a helping hand by wishing me success on my work.

On the surface this is a sweet midrash about the close relationship between god and Moses. On a deeper level, it is a metaphor for God and Moses’s respective roles of leadership. “Shalom” also means the good and welfare of people. Did Moses see to the people’s welfare as a society asks God? Moses answers, “I’m only human”. To which God replies, “you could help.” (Rabbi H.Y. Pollak, p. 65 in Nechama Leibowitz’s Studies in Bamidbar)

By claiming our partnership with God, Jewish theology puts responsibility for our blessings in life on our own shoulders. We pave the way for the coming of the Messianic age by doing tikkun olam, by acting to heal the world. We ready the path for God’s blessing by reaching out first with our actions and lives.

It is notable that our parashah first asks the people to participate in God’s blessing, and next dedicates the Mishkan. The Mishkan is the symbol for God’s presence dwelling among the people. As the Cohanim offer God’s blessing to the people, our covenant is recalled, that God will stand by us and that we will keep faith in God. With our covenant of miztvot in place, we can dedicate the mishkan, and invite God to dwell among us.
Rashi offers this interpretation: In the priestly blessing God promises first to watch over us and our physical welfare – yishmereicha -I will guard you, second God offers us spiritual enlightenment – panav eleicha – I will show my face to you, and finally God blesses us with Shalom –peace, a balance of the physical and spiritual . This balance of blessing is paralleled in our parashah, with the physical elements of the mishkan and the spiritual elements needed to be a people of God intertwined and connected.

To dedicate the Mishkan, the tribal chieftains each bring identical gifts. The gifts affirmed the centrality of the Mishkan and the worth of each tribe; no tribe had higher status than another. Just as the priestly blessing invokes a partnership, so too does the Mishkan, it is built by the people, it is dedicated with acts and deeds, people bringing of themselves to the community.

 
The Hebrew word blessing is taken from the root brch, meaning knee, because when we say our blessings in synagogue we bend down and bow, beginning at the knee, lowering ourselves before God. The name for our parashah, “naso” means “raise up.” As the people become a community, a nation, they are asked to “raise up”, to offer up gifts of themselves, to arise and take responsibility in partnership with God for making the people worthy of blessing, for raising the very walls of the mishkan as symbolic of raising themselves with deeds and acts to a height where God can reside among them.

BaMidbar -Finding God in the Wilderness

When I was in high school I participated in something called “Outward Bound,” three weeks of hiking and canoeing in Northern Ontario, Canada. They made us prove we could climb back into a canoe we had fallen out of before the trip began… it took me an hour of trying to pull myself into that canoe and I was bruised from shoulders to wrists for weeks. Still, the trip was absolutely gorgeous and even now, years later, I can close my eyes and see the otter lying on his back next to my canoe, the moose swimming quickly across the river, the geese taking flight, small blueberry plants and endless trees and greenery as far as the eye could see. I can remember the metal drinking cup I kept in my canoe to dip into the clean water of the river, the camaraderie of new friends, and the strength I gained from paddling and portaging each day. I also remember that I wore the same long underwear for 21 days straight, that the tent was still cold even in my sleeping bag, that I desperately missed hot showers, or any showers, that on the last day we ran out of food. I can remember the monotony of paddling for hour after hour and wondering aloud if we would ever “get there.” But most of all I remember the deep sense of spiritual awakening that came to me through my trek in the wilderness, a sense of who I am, and where I wanted my journey to take me.

The parashah this Shabbat begins the book of Numbers, Bamidbar in Hebrew –“In the Wilderness.” This is a book of difficult times for the Israelites. They lose faith more than once, complaining of the desert hardships and the monotony of the food. They don’t feel God’s presence in spite of the many miracles and wonders God provides. But this is also the book in which our covenant with God is cemented as a nation and in which we accept the Torah into our lives. This is a book of revelation, of God, and of our own spirit. Many commentators have asked why God’s revelation of Torah took place in this wilderness? Why is this revelation part of the book of Bamidbar, in the wilderness, not in the land of Israel? Perhaps, it is precisely the harshness of the wilderness that forms the necessary environment for the spiritual growth and closeness to God that follows. Perhaps each of us, as we travel through life, must cross expansive challenges in order to find the inner strength to hear the still small voice of God calling out to us.

“The wilderness is a frightening place of extremes—of dangerous animals, of searing heat and punishing frost, of scarce food and water. There, a minor mishap can become a life-threatening emergency. And so, when we venture into the wilderness, we go well equipped, just as our ancestors tried to be. Parashat Bemidbar opens the desert trek with a precisely described sense of order. Moses is like a scoutmaster, preparing his charges for the rigors of the road. There is a census, and then a detailed description of the arrangement of the camp, replete with visual imagery of colorful pennants under which our ancestors marched. They were well organized in the beginning—as befits the start of an expedition.” As the book of Numbers proceeds, the people break rank, they cry out against God, they demand to return to Egypt, they lose faith. But in the end, the wilderness is the place in which we receive our Torah, the wilderness is where we are sanctified as a people.

The book of Jeremiah recalls this time in the wilderness fondly: God says ”I remember the devotion of your youth, how as a bride you loved me and followed me through the wilderness, through a land not sown.” (2:2) The wilderness is a time of perfect love between Israel and God. Conversely, the book of Psalms describes the desert trek as 40 years of incessant complaining: “For forty years was I wearied with that generation, And said: It is a people whose hearts go astray, And they have not known My ways.” (95:10) Both accounts are true. The desert was a place of fear and complaint, of loss… but it was also a place of inspiration and love. We have both memories as our inheritance as we grapple with our own relationships with Torah and God.

A midrash, a teaching of the rabbinic era, claims that a voice calls out every day from Mt Sinai. God’s voice calls from the wilderness searching for those who are lost. The rabbis explain, “when a person loses a gem they return to look for in the place where it was lost… So, too, did God “lose” Israel in the wilderness when Israel lost faith. And since it was in the wilderness that God lost Israel, it is in the wilderness that God waits and calls out for Israel to return.” (Aggadat Bereshit, 68). Even now, God calls to us, but we are at such a distance, we can not hear It is not a physical distance, but one of faith, and as we approach the holiday of Shavuot, we are asked to find our way back that mountain, find our way back to our covenant with Torah.

One of the scariest parts of my outward bound trip was the “solo” –three days and nights I spent alone in the woods, with only a whistle to call for emergency help. I was 16 or 17 years old, I’d never been alone for three days in my own home let alone in a green forest wilderness. I was allowed no distractions to hide from my fears, no books, no TV, no music, no one to talk to. It was just me, my thoughts, and all of creation around me. I had my own revelations during those three days. I learned the world was a little less scary than I thought. I learned I was stronger than I thought. I learned that there are magic moments, moments of glory, to be had in the still of the night when all distractions are removed.

Our lives are filled with the hustle and bustle of family, friends, work, and hobbies. We keep calendars to keep track of our many activities and our many responsibilities. We spend our days surrounded by the creations of humanity: walls, roofs, technology, medicine, literature, and art. We lead full and interesting lives. Somewhere in that hustle and bustle is a voice calling to us from Mt Sinai, the still small voice of God calling from the wilderness.

Sometimes we need to return to the wilderness, a space away from the dazzling city lights, the immensity of human invention…. We need to travel to a place, where there is only God and God’s creation. For some of us this spiritual trek begins with the physical leave taking of the bustle of daily life. For some of us, we carve out a space of wilderness in our minds and souls, independent of the material world. This is scary… we may feel impossible… but we also remember the wilderness in our national memory as the time we felt perfectly in union with God… and so we strive forward. It is in the wilderness that we can hear the divine voice and remember our purpose as people and as Jews. The wilderness speaks—hamidbar medaber—and in it a person may discern the voice of God. In the wilderness, the Torah may reveal itself once more.

Tonight we will begin the celebration of Shavuot, God’s revelation to us of the Torah. We will study and pray through Monday and in that study, in that prayer, we will ask God to reveal to us each the Torah once more. But Torah is central to our daily lives as Jews, not just to Shabbat and holidays… and so we need to find daily spaces to engage with the divine.,. to find the wilderness within and without and to hear God’s voice.

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My thanks to Rabbi Daniel Nevins for inspiring this Dvar Torah.

Than you also to Michael Poulin, fellow Outward Bound traveler, who provided this picture of my teenage self as we were departing on our wilderness trek.

BEHAR BEHUKOTAI – COUNTING BLESSINGS

My family had a beautiful mother’s day weekend together in Rochester, the halfway point between Binghamton and Toronto. It was not a weekend without tears or stress but I find I remember only the joyous moments: Exploring a new children’s museum, Eliyana’s first meeting of a real horse, and watching our daughter play and laugh with her cousins. We are blessed. I am reminded of how lucky we are each day. This week my husband accidentally left our mini ipad on the roof of the car.  It is gone. I count my blessings. In a world of car accidents, our daughter, our family, arrived home safely.  My heart goes out to those for whom this is not true, and this week to the families and friends of those who lost  their lives on the Philadelphia – New York train. May God comfort them and give them strength in this time of mourning.

Our parasha this week, Behar Behukotai begins with counting, the counting of a sabbatical year and of the year of jubilee. Seven weeks of years -7×7 years, 49 years, to the jubilee when the land is returned to its original owners, freedom returned to those enslaved, and compassion returned to those in debt. We count and with every day counted, we acknowledge: “There but for the grace of God go I.”  We know that each of us could at any time fall and be dependent on our neighbors to help us again find our footing. Each of us could be victim of an accident, a theft, a mishap…  And so we count, we count our blessings, we count on our community.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch commented that our three patriarchs each exemplified different stages in the recognition of divine blessings in their lives.  He based this on a midrash that pointed to three verses, one for each patriarch, that noted they were blessed in everything (kol).  Rabbi Hirsch calls attention to the words that precede “everything,” noting the differentiation for each of the Patriarch in their acknowledgement of the blessing.

Genesis 24:1: “And Abraham was old, and well stricken in age: and the Lord had blessed Abraham in everything.

Genesis 27:33: (After Isaac discover’s Jacob’s deception) “Then Isaac trembled violently, and said, ‘Who was it then that hunted game and brought it to me, and I ate from everything before you came, and I have blessed him?’

Genesis 33:11: (When Jacob meets with Esau after years of separation) “Accept, I pray you, my gift that is brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me, and because I have everything.

Abraham represents the most basic type of awareness. He appreciates the goodness, the riches bestowed on him.  In connection with him, the word kol is preceded by the preposition ba, meaning “in everything.” It was relatively easy for Abraham to be conscious of God’s blessings because through God he achieved prestige and wealth. Isaac embodied a more advanced stage in the acknowledging divine blessings. In his case, the Torah uses the expression “from everything.” Isaac was a person who actively transformed adversity into goodness. When Isaac was confronted by setbacks or afflictions, he knew how to transform them into positive opportunities to serve God. According to Rabbi Hirsch, Jacob exemplified the ultimate stage in this religious evolution. He declares simply “I have everything” without any qualifying prepositions. (Rabbi Eliezer Siegel)

I have to disagree with Rabbi Hirsch, for me, Isaac, is much more the model for counting blessings.  Life is hard.  There is tragedy. There is pain.  There is loss.  To look at life when faced with adversity and actively count one’s blessings is faith.

This week my colleague and friend, Rabbi Ilana Garber, started chemotherapy. She wrote a beautiful prayer that she recited as she entered the mikvah prior to treatment, thanking God seven times for her many blessings… Seven dips in the mikvah for her wedding, seven circles around her husband under the chupah.  She ends with this seventh blessing:

“God, You are good because Your compassion never ceases, and You are merciful because Your kindness never ends. I am choosing “may’olam kivinu lakh” – we always have hope in You – as my mantra. I do and I will always place my hope and faith in You.  I need to have hope and faith in me. Always. Blessed is the Eternal One who gives me the ability to remember those blessings which are still mine to affirm and the strength to arise anew each day.”

May God help each of us to count our blessings, to give us strength in times of adversity, and to comfort us in times of grief.

The Dress

mex dressSome dear friends visited Mexico recently and brought us back a tiny Mexican embroidered dress for our soon to be two year old daughter.  It is beautiful and I can’t wait to to dress her in it.  But as I held it in my arms a little later, I burst into tears.  My beloved grandmother had a dress like this.  She cherished it and wore it on special occasions each summer.  I can picture in my mind her joy at seeing Eliyana in just such a dress.  I can see my Bubie sitting in our living room, or our garden laughing in this dress, enjoying time with her grandchildren.  I can almost picture her holding my baby, but then the tears well up again and the picture disappears.  My grandmother lived to be almost 93 years old.  I was blessed to have her at my wedding at age 87.  I was blessed to share with her the wonderful news that Tim and I had been matched with a beautiful little girl for adoption.  I was blessed to share my daughter with her in skype and pictures… but they never met.  My grandmother passed away before Eliyana received her citizenship papers.  We couldn’t bring her to Toronto to place her into my grandmother’s loving arms.  I take comfort in the stories my sister and mother shared with me… of my daughters pictures plastered all over Bubie’s nursing home room… of her stopping every nurse, aide, and visitor to show off her beautiful new greatgranddaughter.  But with every new milestone, there is a small stab of pain that I can not share it with my Bubie.  I miss you Bubie.  You are always in my heart.

Tazria Metzora -Refilling the Vessel of Living Torah

Parshah Tazria-Metzora is part of a lengthy Torah discussion on the laws of tumah v’taharah. These we translate to English as ritual “impurity” and “purity”. But the English can not come close to revealing the depths and layers of meaning in tumah and taharah which have more to do with a holiness and life force internalized and depleted. When are we tamei “impure”… when life force has been withdrawn… after child birth, after a woman’s menstrual period, after a man’s seminal emission….  Likewise tazria is not “leprosy, “ but a spiritual illness. It may have physical identifiers, but its root cause is in our souls. We have injured our souls through misguided actions, and now there is spiritual illness…. Or we become depleted of the goodness, divinity within and we need to replenish, to reconnect with God.

Picture every person as a living Torah, an embodiment of the word and light of God. According to midrash, it was through the Torah that God created the world. The Hassidic mystics adapted this idea to suggest that the Torah is the very energy and life-force of Divinity as it fills the world and the human self. Each person is instilled with the divine spirit of Torah, a spark of God.  We become a living Torah in the words we speak, the actions we take. There is a fountain within of living waters, of mitzvot flowing from God.  Sometimes the chanels to the divine become stopped up, or the divine spark within is shadowed or even depleted….

We stand this week halfway to the great revelation of Sinai. Picture yourself, as you stood in body and soul at Sinai and personally received that Torah, personally entering into an enduring covenant with God, with all of Israel.  God filled us, as a vessel is filled with water… We are the Torah that was handed down to Israel… We are the mitzvot.  We are the vessel for the divine in this world.

We read in Exodus 27:20, as the Israelites built the Tabernacle:

וְאַתָּה תְּצַוֶּה אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְיִקְחוּ  אֵלֶיךָ שֶׁמֶן זַיִת זָךְ כָּתִית—לַמָּאוֹר לְהַעֲלֹת נֵר, תָּמִיד.

You shall instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly.

A remarkable commentary on this verse suggests that the light was one meant to fill our souls with the divine. “The Sefat Emet, a late nineteenth century hasidic master wrote: “atah tetzavvehet benei Yisrael” (“You shall ‘instruct’ the Israelites”) may be read as the transformation of the people, each of them, into a living mitzvah. Make them, the people of Israel, into mitzvot in the world—tetzaveh et benei Yisrael. Guide each Jew toward the embodiment and ensoulment of the mitzvot; help them become mitzvot themselves.”

How does a person become a living mitzvah? Through affirming the presence of the sacred in the world and by the love and compassion we show toward others. When we “become mitzvot,” we contribute meaningfully to the building of the sacred “lighting” (ma’or), the luminous presence of God in our world. We bring light into the world. We become instruments of the ahavah rabbah, of God’s love for us, through the mitzvah of Ḥesed, kindness and compassion toward our fellow human beings.

As we count the days until Shavuot, we can meditate on our souls as living Torah.  Have we become depleted, unable to continue to give?  As vessels of God’s light  -is our flame diminished, tamei? The Torah tells us to renew ourselves in the waters of life. Physically we can visit a mikvah.  What are the waters of a mikvah? They are living waters, river, lake, ocean or rain… We affirm the sacred in the world, the base of life, of God, water. Remove our outer layers, make ourselves vulnerable, and immerse ourselves in that affirmation of God, the creator. We open ourselves again to be refilled as vessel of light and holiness, and to be again the embodiment of Torah.  As we prepare to welcome Shavuot, to renew our covenant with God, we affirm once again the sacredness of our world and ourselves.  We immerse ourselves in Torah, in mitzvot, in goodness and kindness.

My thanks to Dr Eitan Fishbane for inspiring this Dvar Torah and allowing me to use his beautiful words.