Friday, June 24, 2016

PARSHAT BEHAALOTECHA 2016



Three weeks ago, during the Shabbat of June 3rd through June 4th Rabbis Aviad Bodner and Gavriel Bellino welcomed a community group for a Shabbaton in their respective shuls in New York. This group was ESHEL, the Orthodox consortium for LGBTQ Jews. As a result, a group of about six Orthodox Rabbis shouted loudly and vehemently that these two Rabbis should be put in Cherem and should not be considered Rabbis for accepting LGBT community members and validating them. Rabbis Bodner and Bollino stood their ground and took the heat. The Shabbaton was an amazing success, I am told.

Two weeks ago, my husband, Ken and I were at a wonderful gathering of about 300 Jews from all parts of the continuum of Jewish observance as part of the Center City Kehillah’s Tikkun Leil Shavuot for the Greater Philadlephia area. People in our home community of Elkins Park, Pennsylvania as well stayed up all night to learn, share and think seriously and intentionally about what it means to be who we are in a real and personal way. We did as so many Jews did around the world did -- as we re-enacted the waiting for the receiving of torah, as Shavuot commemorates for us annually. In the early morning hours, news began to sift to all of us about a horrible tragedy in Orlando. We were stopped in our tracks – within the joy and uplifting nature of the celebration of which we were in the midst.

Rabbi Shmuel Hertzfeld, an Orthodox Rabbi in Washington D.C., quickly responded as follows to the tragedy that occurred:

When our synagogue heard about the horrific tragedy that took place at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, it was at the same time that we were celebrating our festival of Shavuot, which celebrates God’s giving of the Torah.

As Orthodox Jews, we don’t travel or use the Internet on the Sabbath or on holidays, such as Shavuot. But on Sunday night, as we heard the news, I announced from the pulpit that as soon as the holiday ended at 9:17 p.m. Monday, we would travel from our synagogue in Northwest Washington to a gay bar as an act of solidarity.

We just wanted to share the message that we were all in tremendous pain and that our lives were not going on as normal. Even though the holiday is a joyous occasion, I felt tears in my eyes as I recited our sacred prayers. I had not been to a bar in more than 20 years. And I had never been to a gay bar. Someone in the congregation told me about a bar called the Fireplace, so I announced that as our destination. Afterward, I found out it was predominantly frequented by gay African Americans.

Approximately a dozen of us, wearing our kippot, or yarmulkes, went down as soon as the holiday ended. Some of the members of our group are gay, but most are not. We did not know what to expect. As we gathered outside, we saw one large, drunk man talking loudly and wildly. I wondered whether we were in the right place. Then my mother, who was with me, went up to a man who was standing on the side of the building. She told him why we were there. He broke down in tears and told us his cousin was killed at Pulse. He embraced us and invited us into the Fireplace.


Here in our community of Elkins Park/Cheltenham, my colleagues Rabbi Lance Sussman and Dr. Ruth Sandberg immediately began to plan a Memorial for Orlando service on Sunday, waiting for me to finish my observance on Monday night to finalize plans. We had 24 hours to plan a service for Wednesday night, at which I am told by some who counted we had about 140 in attendance. Moslems, Jews and Christians – gay and straight – people of all colors – people across the Jewish spectrum – and just human beings all came together to mourn, to share and to gain strength from each other as we all work together to reboot after yet another assault on who we are as members of the family of humanity. As one gay woman said to me afterwards, “This was really important, I hadn’t thought about how this had an impact on the Moslem community.” That says it all – this impacted all of us in different ways, and our respective recoveries will take time and while they may follow different trajectories there is so much we will all share.

So, what would Yitro think? You know, the Midianite Leader that was Moshe Rabbeinu’s chief advisor! We have often read and discussed his advise to Moshe, his Jewish son-in-law. In this week’s Parsha, BeHaalotecha, we confront a question that began in the Parsha that carries his name and has followed us up to this point regarding Yitro, that is fundamental to our understanding of who he was and appreciation of what he did.

We read as follows in Chapter 10 of this week’s Parsha: 29 And Moses said unto Hobab, the son of Reuel the Midianite, Moses' father-in-law: 'We are journeying unto the place of which the LORD said: I will give it you; come thou with us, and we will do thee good; for the LORD hath spoken good concerning Israel.' 30 And he said unto him: 'I will not go; but I will depart to mine own land, and to my kindred.' 31 And he said: 'Leave us not, I pray thee; forasmuch as thou knowest how we are to encamp in the wilderness, and thou shalt be to us instead of eyes. 32 And it shall be, if thou go with us, yea, it shall be, that what good soever the LORD shall do unto us, the same will we do unto thee.' 33 And they set forward from the mount of the LORD three days' journey; and the ark of the covenant of the LORD went before them three days' journey, to seek out a resting-place for them.

It is of note that we read texts dealing with both יתרו and רות during שבועות which we all just observed and it is the journey of רות that is chosen for our model of conversion and affirmation of faith while יתרו comes to teach us something completely different in our reading today. While some of our commentaries such as Rashi want to pitch the idea that יתרו did convert (for how could we have a Midianite priest be the chief advisor to the leader of the B’nai Yisrael – it just would not look right! – and here point to his name used -- חובב – to indicate his unwavering love of Torah and Ramban proposes that this was the new name he took upon his conversion in שמות to indicate his love of the Jewish people, here we are taught by these and other commentaries of the same ilk that יתרו is given many reasons by Moshe not to leave the people and to return to his land where he knows he has designated property. His knowledge of the Jewish people, familiarity with other nations, witnessing to the greatness of HaShem are all good reasons, actually GREAT reasons for him to stay. YET, the Torah DOES NOT DEFINITIVELY LET US KNOW the end of this interchange. These commentaries assume he stayed with the Jewish People for the self-same obvious reasons. However, others, such as Sforno, say NO – he did indeed return to his people.

Sforno finds colleagues who are willing to take this perspective in more modern iterations of interpretations of the Torah text. In the Etz Chaim edition of Torah commentary, for example, we are actually confronted with a question regarding Moshe’s motivation, namely “Why does Moshe plead with his non-Israelite relative to be their guide?” Notice that this question presupposes that Yitro did NOT convert back in the series of events narrated in Sefer Shemot. Yes, Yitro, according to this reading, heard all of the wonderful deeds that HaShem did for Moshe and his people and did in fact join in celebration with Moshe’s brethren but does this effect in toto conversion, as Rashi would have it? Clearly there is not agreement on this point.

What distinguishes Yitro in terms of the decisions he makes, when compared with say Avraham when he states that he WILL LEAVE all of those familiar places to which Yirto wants to return and Ruth when she claims that she too WILL LEAVE all that is familiar to join with Naomi and her people and place? Can we carefully consider the text at hand with minimal interpretive lenses? Maybe, just maybe, Yitro comes to teach us something completely different also needed in our lives.

Sharon Sobel teaches as follows (on the Reform Judaism website) regarding Yitro:

The Torah portion …Yitro, teaches us that we must look beyond the superficial qualities when it comes to choosing a good leader. It helps us understand that there are certain criteria for leadership that transcend political, ethnic, and socioeconomic boundaries. Parashat Yitro enables us to make a distinction between the characteristics that make a great leader and those that make only a good leader. Ultimately, these qualities enable leaders to create meaningful relationships with those around them so that together they can work for the betterment of all.

Yitro provides us with two models of excellent leaders: Jethro, the Midianite priest who is also Moses' father-in-law, and Moses. Jethro is an example of a wise and seasoned leader. He is an impartial observer who is willing to share his knowledge, understanding, and wisdom with Moses. Moses is still in the first stages of his career as the leader of the Jewish people. He is a reluctant leader who ascended to his position only at God's insistence. Moses is humble: His ego does not get in the way. He is an excellent example of a leader who is able to listen to and learn from others. One of his great strengths is that he listens carefully to Jethro's wise advice and does not hesitate to integrate and incorporate that advice into the manner in which he leads.


So Yitro teaches us about outside impartiality and wisdom and Moshe teaches us the value of listening to everyone, both inside our camp and outside! These are two very valuable lessons.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and so many others teach often about the value of interfacing with and listening to others as we build bridges of understanding. He points to anthropological research in terms of the value of listening to our innermost beings in understanding who we are and balancing that with what we learn about ourselves from the objective outside. Perhaps this is what Yitro teaches us – the value of advising from the outside and appreciating the anthropological value of the people whom he was advising while acknowledging at the end that his place was really with his own. Does this make him any less of a role model for us … or perhaps even more so an important model?

Rabbi Shmuel Hertzfeld was definitely someone from the outside when he walked into the gay bar in Washington and yet he built really important bridges as an outsider. Many of us who were involved in Memorial services these past two weeks crossed numerous lines of gender identity, religious belief, ethnicity and nationality, sexuality and so much else in becoming part of these collectives. YET NO ONE SUFFERED THE GENUINE NATURE OF THEIR IDENTITY BY LISTENING TO AND INTENTIONALLY SHARING SPACE WITH SO MANY OTHERS. This helped ALL of us through very difficult days.

I think that Yitro understood this. When Moshe implored him to stay with these words from 7:31:

31 And he said: 'Leave us not, I pray thee; forasmuch as thou knowest how we are to encamp in the wilderness, and thou shalt be to us instead of eyes.

Yitro responded…. Well, as already indicated, we do not know how he responded. I personally suspect that if he joined the B’nai Yisrael, this would have been reported as such given the general tone and choice of topics we find in the Torah. I do believe that he returned to his people, understanding that we can all come together in times of pain and angst and hardship and help each other while never negating who we are. We do NOT need to leave our people to be helpful to others. While Ruth may serve as the DUGMA of the Convert for us, I think we need to think of YITRO as the DUGMA of the leader from another people with whom we can negotiate. Both of these models are so important when we think of the giving and receiving of Torah in our lives and how we apply it’s teachings. Rabbi Sacks is always asking us and challenging us to be on the lookout for such leaders and to be that ourselves when we join public spaces with others. This I believe is the lesson of Yitro and it is a lesson that the Rabbis who threatened Rabbis Bodner and Bollino, and others who refuse to understand someone “other” than themselves would do well to learn. And those of us who do frequent these shared spaces are hopefully here to teach precisely this lesson through our actions and so much more.

Shabbat Shalom.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

PARSHAT BECHUKOTEI 2016/5776



This week we finished the third book of the Torah, ויקרא ספר . This past Wednesday, I taught my last Parsha Shiyur of the year to an adorable group of Kindergarten and First Grade students at Perelman (other side of town). When we completed the Parshiot of שמות several months ago, one of these budding scholars asked me what we were going to do the rest of the year. I was a bit perplexed and just said we will continue to learn the Parshiot. But, he replied, the next book is VaYikra and we are too young to learn that part of the Torah – our teachers do not allow it. So, I quickly replied, tell your teachers and parents this is an HONORS CLASS and we are continuing with VaYikra!

Now, I knew where this was coming from. We think that the details and the focus on so many levels of reaching often difficult to attain degrees of קדושה are better left to older students; of course the reality is that too many of our students, even graduates of Day Schools, NEVER GET TO this book of rules and regulations. What a shame! Actually, long ago, children at a young age BEGAN their intentional study of Torah with this very text. And I am happy to report that my cute little students have done well, learning about how we are supposed to behave, the reality of how we often behave, the standards set for us by Ribbonu shel Olam, why those standards are set, how we can incorporate them in our lives and so on. Most of all, they have learned about the values of intentionality, sincerity and honesty in our actions in our daily lives and how these values are so rooted foundationally in our Torah.

During this last session of the year, I ended our study together with an important lesson from Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, one of my favorite teachers, as you have by now figured out no doubt. Rabbi Sacks teaches a most important lesson about these verses that was not lost on my students. We focused on the following verses:

I will bring despair into the hearts of those of you who survive in enemy territory. Just the sound of a windblown leaf will put them to running, and they will run scared as if running from a sword! They will fall even when no one is chasing them! They will stumble over each other as they would before a sword, even though no one is chasing them! You will have no power to stand before your enemies. (Lev. 26: 36-37)

After scaling back the language just a bit and sharing this, I asked the kids, So who or what is the enemy territory and the enemies of which Rabbi Sacks speaks? THEY GOT IT! The enemy that will cause us to stumble is not always external, it is not always THEM; rather it is too often internal, it is US! It is US when we do not act according to the standards that are set for us. It is US when we are not intentional about our doing Mitzvot. It is US when we take ourselves, G-d, our land and each other too casually and doing what we do out of some misguided sense of perfunctory duty instead of truly understanding and considering what we do and its impact on all aspects of the equation we call LIFE!

This text appears as part of the profound warnings given us in this Parsha. We are told in these verses and those preceding as well as after them that the entire system that G-d has put together needs us to maintain it – otherwise, it will fall apart. If we do not observe the Sabbatical year as we are adjoined to in verse 34, then the appeasement (or תקנה if you will) will be we will lose the land and it will rest in our absence. If we are not scrupulous in observing laws of ownership and redeeming land, we will lose our sense of being. If we do not remember our accountability to and for each other, than we will be fighting each other as we have just read in the painful words, באחיו איש וכשלו – we will become weak because of and with each other instead of strengthened by the ties that bind us – worse than the enemy from external sources, the real threat to our well being is to become the enemy within!

In short the entire system of G-D, COMMUNITY, LAND and INDIVIDUAL that is so carefully scripted throughout the words of TORAH and specifically, Sefer VaYikra, will be destroyed, and there will be no one to blame except for ourselves. So now what?

Rabbi Sacks explains as follows:

[We must remember] that there is nothing unique to Judaism in the idea that we are all implicated in one another’s fate. That is true of the citizens of any nation. If the economy is booming, most people benefit. If there is a recession many people suffer. If a neighborhood is scarred by crime, people are scared to walk the streets. If there is law and order, if people are polite to one another and come to one another’s aid, there is a general sense of well-being. We are social animals, and our horizons of possibility are shaped by the society and culture within which we live.

All of this applied to the Israelites so long as they were a nation in their own land. But what happened when they suffered defeat and exile and were eventually scattered across the earth? They no longer had any of the conventional lineaments of a nation. They were not living in the same place. They did not share the same language of everyday life.

So how did the members of the Jewish nation maintain or lose those features that defined them --- US --- as a people – this is Rabbi Sacks’ fundamental question? Let us look back for a moment at verses 21 and those that follow in Perek כו.

קרי עמכם אני אף … קרי עמי תלכו אם If you behave XXX with me (and my Mitzvot) I will behave XXX with you…

Specifically, I want for us to consider the word קרי, which appears five times in the short span of 8 Pasukim AND ONLY at this point in the Torah, no other! After verse 41 of this chapter, we will not see this word again. Rashi takes this word to mean “casual” as in קרה or מקרה all of which share their derivation – this is the definition appearing in most of our texts that follow Rashi’s interpretive translation. Onkeles, on the other hand, indicates that there is a sense of contrariness or rebellion here, preferred by the BDB in its explanation and in other translations that are not beholden to Rashi. How do we get from such a benign meaning to one that is potentially explosive or why did Rashi take the kick out of the word? What was CONTRARY about what the Jews were doing here? Was it that they were not observing and practicing according to all of the carefully laid out plans, or was it something else? What does it mean if we go with Rashi on this and take the word קרי to mean CASUAL? What could possibly be the problem?

There is an old story told from the earlier days of email and technology. Someone approached his Rabbi asking why the various Mitzvot as prescribed were so detailed and complicated? The Rabbi explained that every detail and every precise element had a purpose and for the total effect to be felt, all details had to be included in the whole entity. The person inquiring just continued to indicate disagreement with this approach and became first careless in his reasoning and then moved on to being contrary. At this point the Rabbi said, okay, lets stop this conversation because I have to leave. I will email you the rest of my response. The Rabbi did as he promised, but did not hear from the individual with whom he had the discussion. He then began to bombard the Rabbi with emails asking why he had not heard. The Rabbi continued to resend his original response. Then the phone call came. “Why did you not answer me? Does that mean I am correct about the details not being important?” The Rabbi said he definitely responded and began to read back the email to the person. Everything was correct in the address except for one problem – the “.” Was missing before the last letters “org” in the address. The individual was completely frustrated with the Rabbi, who simply responded “but it was only one little dot – such an insignificant detail!”

We may not always understand the details. Or those details may not be beneficial to us individually. But if we are casual in their observance and then move to being careless in observing them and so forth down that slippery slope to fighting their very existence, the entirety of our work may very well be for naught. To not care or to not be attentive to the details of our lives as caring and responsible people – this could potentially lead us to become our own worst enemies – acting in a way that is contrary to the intended way we are to be. As we repeated the words upon completing this book of our Torah (until next year) indicating strength in our learning (CHAZAK CHAZAK V’NITCHAZEK) let us remember that the strength of our identity is indeed in the details of that identity and it is KAVANAH we strive for, not to be קרי or casual in our observance . Shabbat Shalom!

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

A DIFFERENT AND AMAZING FAITH COMMUNITY

I have the amazing privilege of serving along with a treasured colleague as co-President of our area’s Multi-Faith Council. We come together monthly for programs and support and to share our sense of faith and belief along with the spirituality that is at the core of our members as we discuss an incredibly wide range of challenging issues, including prevention of gun violence, inclusion of LGBTQ members of our community, environmental sustainability, the place and voices of women in religious spaces, relationships amongst the various communities of faith and so much else.

I have to thank my son Brian for bringing this group into my life, for it is through his Track coach, who introduced me to his wonderful wife, that this amazing collection of ministers, Rabbis, pastors, etc. came to be part of the total of my ongoing involvements. I have often said that I have the most in common with people of faith whose approach to their beliefs and religious lives are similar to mine, motivated by my faith in G-d as well as the notion that G-d wants the best from all of us and that includes our most vulnerable aspects of self, our most foundational beliefs about what it is that we are here to do and be.

Interestingly enough, it is this sense of spiritual awareness and understanding of self that often separates me from too many members of my membership community, that is the shuls or synagogues to which we have belonged through the years. Too often and sadly (for me), in the Orthodox Jewish world in which I live, spirituality can be quickly dismissed as empty of religion and devoid of meaning. I have always bristled when I hear people talking about something I hold so dear in such derisive terms. I firmly believe that my adherence to Jewish practice and the laws and teachings that define it is based precisely in my belief in G-d, in the notion that there is a Higher Being to whom I owe gratitude and show that gratitude by living intentionally and with thought and care. One of the most powerful names for G-d in Jewish texts is The Compassionate One (Rachmana); and this is what I think we are here to model – truly caring for each other, seeing the pain that others are in, and in trying to do something to make our collective situation better for all who are created by G-d. This I have taught my children along with the many details that mark our lives daily as religiously observant Jews – the two elements are inextricably tied together for me.

Last month, our Multi-Faith Council decided to have our program dedicated to a discussion about loss in our lives. This was precipitated by a particularly painful loss of the child of one of our members. Several others of us had discussed how we process this part of living and what it does to our sense of faith and spiritual being at various points during the many conversations we have had at various meetings and programs. So we decided to spend the two-hour meeting (which actually went almost three hours) discussing what we, who are often called upon to support others when they experience loss of loved ones, do to give ourselves strength and fortitude at such times in our lives. What was quickly discovered was that in this group of Jews and Christians of many different denominations, there was a shared culture of appreciation of life and holding onto the legacy of those who are no longer with us in powerful and ongoing ways. Many rituals were discussed, as was the notion that these rituals may come from our texts and our respective faith’s codes of practice as well as from places very deeply set in our hearts.

There was a certain quiet and calm in this discussion, and I for one, found it amazingly healing; dare I say it was one of the most powerful exchanges I have had this year as I continue to mourn the loss of both of my parents nine and ten months ago respectively. I felt that I could freely share what I was FEELING more so than in spaces that are dictated for us to process such losses according to the myriad details of praxis found in Jewish law. We were all just there, truly holding on to each other with care and compassion and understanding. I felt as though I had just been at a retreat of some type and it has stayed with me for the month since this occurred.

I think that sometimes, in spite of the best and most noble of intentions, that we get so caught up in what we are supposed to do that we lose that we just FEEL certain things and need to process them in individuated and unscripted ways. This is where I think spirituality is fundamental to our faith, and for this Halachically observant Jew, it is anything but empty. I have often said when people look at me puzzled when I speak of G-d that I think that G-d could be considered as THE ONE who fills up all of the spaces that we can’t account for in our universe. I think that for those who do not understand spirituality, maybe that’s what fills up the spaces that we can’t account for in our own individuated beings. All I know is that I am grateful to G-d and grateful to this group of which I am part for the spiritual space we can create together.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

A GROUP OF CHILDREN FROM WHOM WE CAN LEARN SO MUCH

Our daughter Rachie called me one night a while ago and asked what I remembered about Israel and the various conflicts that confronted it in the early 1990’s. I love how our children and I can speak freely and often about important issues and she just simply needed some information – since she was a toddler through five years of age during the time she was asking about and just did not remember…. (Silly Rachie!) I then shared various stories of wonderful interactions between Palestinians and Israeli Arabs and Israelis; Jews, Christians and Arabs and so on.

One particularly funny memory was when Rachie and Talie were approaching their fifth birthday and we were in Israel along with Yoella, my eldest daughter at the age of nine. The four of us were walking through the shuk and I realized all of a sudden that Rachie and Talie were not with us but had gone ahead and that we were in the Arab shuk which had reopened recently. I was not worried because in the earliest part of the 90s people did not feel a need to do so generally. Anyway, we kept walking and about ten stalls in Rachie and Talie were playing with two little boys under the watchful eye of their grandfather, who explained to me that he thought we should marry them off to each other. We all had a good laugh. Now this seems implausible today for so many reasons beginning with what type of horrible mother would not keep a careful eye on her young daughters in the Arab shuk, much less go there to begin with…. But such were the times of the early 90s in Israel.

In the meantime, my husband Ken brought the following article from The Forward to my attention within hours of this conversation. It is a revisiting twenty years later of seven children who were the stars of the series “The Children of Jerusalem” produced by the Canadian National Board of Film, about their lives now that two decades have passed. You can see this article here:

http://forward.com/culture/338071/what-ever-became-of-the-children-of-jerusalem/

After reading this article, go to this site to see the actual documentary segments about their lives. I have done so and the three and a half hours you will spend meeting these children will be so worthwhile; I promise.

http://search.tb.ask.com/search/GGmain.jhtml?st=kwd&ptb=23BA20D9-4BD0-455E-80AE-93D2DB702005&n=780c711e&ind=2014081310&p2=^UX^xdm787^YYA^us&searchfor=Beverly+Shaffer%27s+Children+of+Jerusalem

You will meet Ibrahim, Yehuda, Tamar, Gesho, Asya, Yakoub, and Neveen. Through their eyes and walking with them through their streets and garnering insights into their days, we are reminded of the reality of life in the early nineties. Yes, there were concerns but it was a time when parents sent children on buses with their pelephones and they were to call when they arrived at their grandparents. Children (including mine) would wander the Ben Yehuda area all hours of the night on Motzei Shabbat or Thursday nights while their parents (including me) would sit and chat at Atara (remember that?). It was a different time and it was a time when so many people in all of these different groups thought that if we retained our relationships and told people about our friendships and our respect and regard for each other, maybe, just maybe, the threatening storm of divisiveness and fear would not get worse but would be obliterated.

As we know all too well now, this is exactly what did not happen. There are too many conflicts, too much anger and hurt and too many loose cannons amongst our people and all groups in Israel as well as elsewhere that cause this threat to indeed be so much more a matter of concern today, twenty years later. How sad!

This is particularly evident in the sad story of Neveen. To amplify her pain, I just read another chilling article about the Shuafat Refugee Camp in The Jerusalem Report. Too much has indeed gone wrong. While Yaakoub talks about his hopes that when he gets older he will ride his bicycle in the streets and just in circles in his courtyard, we see that things did not improve. Then there are Yehuda and Tamar, both of whom have their own story about their religious journeys that took them away from so much of their childhoods as observant Jews.

There is too much to be sad about and mourn here. Yet, I continue to think of the large numbers of people in all of these groups who are still working together to continue to build important bridges. The growth of the Yad b’Yad schools make me hopeful; the continuing successes of the Galilee Palestinian-Israeli Circus, the sports leagues and so much else I have written about here all allow me to hold onto the hope today that so many in the early 90s had but have sadly lost. There is too much at stake to not work together and to continue to hope that the threat of all that can destroy does not do so.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Teapots are not forever and family trees last a long time!



One of my most distinct ongoing daily memories of growing up in my mom and dad’s house was that of the teapot whistling in their kitchen. I remember hearing it and feeling it in the whole house. It appeared to me that it was always the same teapot and the same whistle – kind of timeless to the eyes of a child and what I remember from that perspective. Mom or Dad were always boiling water either to salt/kasher the meat (remember those days?) or more regularly and often to have a cup of tea or coffee, and I have wonderful memories of us all sitting with our boiling water and Lipton tea bags in front of us. This of course was BWU (Before Water Urns)! So until this day, there is something about always having a teapot on my stovetop even though our water does indeed come from the urn and the teapot is mostly for effect, to tell the truth – think kitchen jewelry! Clearly this has not made the same impact on our children and family!

As Ken and I were shopping for Pesach this year and replenishing what needed to be bought in addition to food, I realized that our teapot for the year (as opposed to the blue and red signature one we take out for Pesach) was looking rather sad and worn and quite unexpectedly I found a beautiful sparkling purple teapot on our shopping expedition! I suggested that we send ours to teapot heaven and splurge on this beautiful new piece of “kitchen art.” We did just that! I was quite pleased with my new teapot though I must admit I take it as a personal affront when something breaks or wears out because I am so good at taking care of things. But of course, it happens! So home we went with some dish brushes, a few other things and the new purple teapot which we would use for Pesach and after that during the year – my new “forever (or NOT) teapot”!

Pesach was wonderful and of course, the teapot did not make an impression on anyone. Nor did we ever hear it whistle because the urn just did its thing! The only real use was for pouring boiling water over our sink and surfaces we would be using for the coming holiday observance.

Then the day after Pesach ended, our family had the unveiling for my mom and dad, both of whom finished their work and journey on this earth this past fall. Children, grandchildren who could be there, great-grandchildren, and assorted cousins and best friends gathered at the cemetery where their bodies lie in Baltimore as we thought about Mom and Dad and what they left for us as their “forever people” to continue their legacy. My sister, Pam, is an artist and presented us with a beautiful book of the legacy and history of Ken and Hannah, our parents. It was so clear in that book, as in the many pictures and books we have already assembled to honor this legacy and in the many stories we tell that my parents and the generations before them are definitely continuing in all of us in concrete and visceral ways. This was also evident in the stories we continue to tell and share and the teachings that our generation instills in OUR children and grandchildren (or children’s children, in my personal case!) as well as the cousins (second, third and fourth, whatever that means!) daily through example as well as and more than through word.

I have always admired the Native Americans and their story telling traditions in which the teachings and wisdom of the elders are passed on and maintained through the generations, keeping the thread of connection to one’s past intact while simultaneously setting the roots of the future in place. I often asked my parents for their stories. I know that each of us did so and as a result have a different lens on their lives, depending on what and how they shared at different times. During most of their lives, my father was much more forthcoming in talking about his past (even about the Navajo Indian Chief who was part of his family’s experience long ago and whose picture we all saw many times in my parents’ house). As I have written earlier, through the last years of my mom’s life, specifically the last year itself, I learned many of these stories that she shared with me through the fog of her dementia, but I am grateful that I have this legacy to pass on to others. I am confident that my brother, sister, and cousins will all continue to do the same.

We read in Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) about how life is ephemeral and how it comes and goes while the earth on which it plays out remains. While we often worry about that earth – our planet – given what is going on in our reality today, the point is that things do take on a life of their own. I have learned this as I now often wear my “legacy jewelry” – that is jewelry from my mom (as well as my mother-in-law and her sister) – I feel the connection to my mom’s soul and her being in so many ways as I do towards my dad. I still hear their voices and their wisdom as well as their pain and their challenges and I continue to carry all of this with me every day. My children know this and their children will come to know that this is part of who I am as well. As for my new teapot – maybe I will boil up some water every now and then and give the urn a rest, and think of my parents’ kitchen and the life that once was there.

Friday, April 22, 2016

A Simple Thought About Questions and Our Sedarim

It is a bit after noon on Friday, April 22, 2016 (14 Nissan 5776)and the last things to do for Seder preps cannot be done until later – matzah balls in the soup, set the table (always done later just for fun) and the green vegetables for tonight and tomorrow. So, my thoughts turn to the Seder itself. What is the most important part of the Seder itself? Okay so those of you who know the script will answer PASCHAL LAMB, MATZAH and MAROR. But, wait that is not really what I mean – so allow me to illustrate. Our five-year old Kindergarten students (daughters of my daughter, my husband calls them grandchildren, go figure!) informed me yesterday that everyone was put on buses at their day school and taken to a synagogue for their model Seder. So today, when we were just hanging out with the first of the Boston segment of the family who is back for Seders, our daughter and their most lovely and intelligent Aunt Rachie, we asked them why this was done? (My question to them.) They did not know how to respond. So then I asked them the following questions: How big was the room where they had their entire school come together for their Model Seder? Do they have a room that is that big at their school? They got it! Then I went back to the original question – Why did you all get on buses and go to a synagogue? Answer? Because we did not have a room big enough at our school to hold everyone and the parents who also came!

This is the lesson of Pesach. How do we ask questions and what are the answers that the questions yield? What are the pre-questions (think pre-quel, which everyone is so into these days!)? In this way, everyone is heard, we get to clarify what we mean to say and we achieve meaningful conversation. Too often and too sadly, this is a lost art. With presidential candidates interrupting each other and shouting each other down, people in the workplace not listening to the other but so focused on getting their point across, what happened to meaningful conversation.

Tonight (and tomorrow night for those of us not in Israel) we will be going through scripted conversations. WATCH how the Rabbis speak with – NOT TO OR AT – each other, really try to get to the root of their questions and watch what each learns in the ensuing dialogue. This is precisely why our seders go on until two or three o’clock in the morning – because we discuss, explore, think about each others’ thoughts and truly and intentionally listen to each other.

How I wish we could all do exactly this in our daily lives. It may take a bit longer to get through a conversation but imagine what it would mean in terms of how we relate to each other. If we do not understand or agree with the question or comment at hand, let us not shout down the other with our view so intent on making OUR point. Rather, let us remember that listening to the other is more important in communication than anything we say. Or to think about this in another way, there is a sign in Neli and Neima’s (the children in this conversation) classroom that reminds all that LISTEN AND SILENT ARE MADE UP OF THE SAME LETTERS. Now there is a lesson for us all to learn.

So here is my question for now: What is the most important part of your Seder itself? Chag Kasher v’Sameach to all.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Parshat Metzora, Shabbat HaGadol 2016/5776 April 16, 2016/ 8 Nissan 5776



If you love Divrei Torah, you have Rabbi Isaac Bernays, the Chief Rabbi of Hamburg Germany in the first half of the nineteenth century to thank! Originally Divrei Torah were only given on Shabbat HaGadol (today) and Shabbat Shuvah during the Aseret Yimai Teshuvah in the Jewish community. The sermon as such was an import from the outside and other religious traditions. Bernays wanted to stem the tide of the religiously observant Jews not becoming the outsiders and maintaining their place in the larger German social and secular community and adopted this practice (along with others such as the wearing of canonicals) from the Christian world, bringing it into the Jewish community as an established practice. In every way, he was a social reformer – bringing general education, often only available to the wealthier classes, into his Talmud Torah schooling system in 1822. In so many ways, while the name Samson Raphael Hirsch is credited with the beginning of neo-Orthodoxy, it was his teacher, Bernays who set the tone for the integration of religious and general life that we know so well today.

So here we are on Shabbat HaGadol, preparing for Pesach, and talking about outsiders in Parshat Metzora. Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz writes as follows regarding how we think about Shabbat HaGadol:

The source for this name, mentioned in Halachic sources for over one thousand years, is not known. Various theories have been offered, one of which is the desire to connect this Shabbat to Passover. Indeed, different traditions in Jewish communities point to this. For example, there is a tradition to read the Passover Haggada on this Shabbat as preparation for the Seder. There is also a tradition for the rabbi of the community to deliver a sermon on this Shabbat regarding the halachot and significance of the holiday.

It seems not to be coincidental that Shabbat was chosen as the day on which to prepare for Passover. Shabbat is closely linked to the Exodus from Egypt, and therefore to Passover. As we say in kiddush on Friday evening, “... and with love and favor gave us His holy Shabbat as a heritage, a remembrance of Creation. [For that day is] the prologue to the holy convocations, a remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt.”

As we think about this event of Yitziat Mitzrayim, it is so important to remember that ALL members of B’nai Yisrael were included in this event. In fact, we say this as part of our Seder when we enjoin all to remember that WE WERE all involved in this seminal event, NOT JUST the generations from long ago. We invite all those who need to do so, to come and join our Seder in our words. Do we do this in our deeds? We say the words about every generation remembering the taste of servitude to a human master and the freedom of that servitude; do we act in our deeds with such a remembering mindset? In short are we welcoming to all, and inclusive to the degree that all are insiders or are there still outsiders in our lives and in our communities today?

So, now we turn to our Parsha. First of all, look at the word Metzora - מצרע. Notice the various words incorporated in it – narrow straits - צר (as in Mitzrayim); then there is root for sorrow or distress - צער; and finally the root for STOP - עצר. Let us think about various forms of distress associated with this topic and how we have the power to stop it – by reintroducing all of us into the total collective of our community. We learn in Parshat Metzora about the purification process of the one who is afflicted with Tzara’at. Many of the steps of this process are similar to that of the Karban Pesach – perhaps precisely because this applied to all members of the community and was focused on their full inclusion in the religious ritual of the collective. Further, while there is concern about purity and the need for isolation, which can indeed serve purposes medically and psychologically, we are more wrapped up with the details of re-entry – that is insuring that the person afflicted with Tza’ra’at is NOT excluded from the community permanently. Do we take this process to heart today?

In the Gemara, there are so many comparisons between the Metzora, the Ovel and the Menudeh, along with others who might be “thought to be excluded” for one reason or another. Why do we compare these three types of people? How do we see them as connected to each other? What are they each experiencing, as they are “outside the camp,” so to speak? They are experiencing loss of companionship, of inclusion and of ability to participate fully in the ongoing life of community, with its rituals, Mitzvot and ongoing life of observance and celebration. This notion of potential “outsiders” is expressed time and again in the Gemara – Masechet Pesachim, Yevamot, Hagiga, Moed Katan, Megilah, and so on. Within this myriad of discussions, the focus is consistently on enabling and insuring the fullest participation possible of all potentially marginalized members and groupings of our communal society.

Consider the following amazing teaching from Masechet Pesachim: In Perek Shvii, there is an extensive examination of how we insure that all members of the B’nai Yisrael can indeed participate in the Karban Pesach. It is in this context that the differentiation of those who are Tahor/pure and those who have some Tum’ah/impurity is articulated in how it is insured that ALL members of the community can participate. Percentages of groups with varying tum’ot are mentioned and the Rabbis present different options of how to insure group inclusion. At one point it is actually suggested that if just less than half of a group have Tum’ot and just more than half of a group are not so impaired, how do we insure that the group can participate in the Karban Pesach. One solution given is to provide a “sheretz” – some unclean thing to just enough, even one person, members of the group to make more than ½ of the group in the Tum’ah category and thus able to participate as a group with the Korban Pesach. What a concept!

Within this discussion on 80a, we read:

בצייבור דחויה טומאה עלמא דכולי Everyone agrees that Tum’ah is overridden by community

In other words, it was so important to facilitate the participation of everyone and not to render anyone as an “outsider” that various elements of Tum’ah were set aside to facilitate everyone being considered an insider. This is also evident in discussions about obligations to hear Shofar, to be in a Sukkah, hear Megillah, offer the Hagiga offering, and participate in Jewish community in so many other facets.

Tza’ra’at, so associated with Miriam and her experience in speaking against Moshe as we are often taught, becomes a moment for learning for all as Moshe indicates they will not move on without his sister and Miriam herself is healed, both on the surface, and perhaps internally as she may come to the realization that when one uses speech to render someone an outsider, the speaker in this instance becomes the outsider – the one excluded – and is brought in by the compassion and the “stepping up” of the one they may have wronged. What an important lesson to be applied in our lives today when we think of our community and who is included!

There is another important lesson here. Our lives as human beings are all about living on the continuum of pure and impure – these are not static points, but rather moving parts of the ongoing reality of our lives. Our Law gives us approaches to deal with them, through participation in the community and coming together, need for reflection and sometimes a measured dose of isolation, and then full inclusion. Is this about outsiders and insiders, or rather about how each of us fall into all stated categories at some point. That is to say, any of us who has a visible physical deficit or a skin affliction (think poison ivy, eczema, allergic rashes, etc.) knows the feeling of being looked at differently. As suggested by a second grader many years ago when I was teaching this Parsha, maybe the purpose of the isolation is NOT for the community but for the individual to not be hurt or embarrassed but to focus on their own healing. Now that is a sobering thought.

As the Parsha continues, we come across Nidah, Zav, Zavah, Ba’al Keri – amplifying the point that all of these experiences are just part of being human as are the various differentiations in our lives. While there are lengthy discussions about how we separate from the individual in question – whether an ovel, a metzora or a menudeh – the real goal of the discussion is how we include as many people as possible as often as possible and while the law scripts that inclusion, it is up to us as people of compassion, following G-d as Rachmana, to insure that it happens fully and completely.

Maybe just maybe when we read the words: מטמאצם ישראל בני את והזרתם And you shall separate the B’nai Yisrael from their Tum’ah

at the end of our Parsha, this lack of understanding that does not put community first and show compassion to each individual is the most profound Tum’ah of all!

Is this not the message of Pesach with our reading about our Aramean beginnings, our different types of children, the lengthy discussions of our learned forebearers and their different approaches, the many different foods and what they represent and so on. None of these discussions are about US and THEM -- the insiders and the outsiders -- but rather how to insure that we all remain insiders to the greatest degree possible so that when an individual is rendered what could potentially be considered an “outsider,” pause is taken and law is remembered. This was clearly the concern of our teachers from long ago; let our teachers today and all of us remember this as we prepare for this Pesach. I do believe Rabbi Bernays would find this an appropriate Shabbat HaGadol lesson to consider.

Shabbat Shalom!