Thursday, May 27, 2010

Shir HaShirim, My Father, and an Eleventh Grade Tanach Class

We always value the repetition and review that is endemic to Jewish learning. We repeat cycles in our annual reading of Torah portions, celebrations of Jewish holidays, revisit learned material and consider ongoing review or “chazarah” as part and parcel of learning Gemara. So, this year as we celebrated Pesah, we all read the book of Shir HaShirim, the text of the greatest love poem and story of all time – that between the people of Israel and G-d, according to Rashi and classical commentators; and between a man and his beloved wife/woman according to the words of the text as read by so many. Others have suggested a variety of additional possible readings. My contention is that this is a great love story between A and B and that it is not critically important which identity we give to these two lovers. Isn’t that the sign of great poetry and literature – its potential for universal appeal and application?!

So, I was teaching the text of Shir HaShirim to a wonderful group of eleventh grade students as I have often done as part of my teaching and learning life. This year was different though. This particular group of students really grabbed on to this writing and its multitude of meanings and possibilities. As a result, my experience in this wonderful Community of Teachers and Learners (always my goal and how I see my mission as a Jewish educator – to see all of us as both teachers and learners in a community I facilitate!) was even more thoughtful and intense than in the past. We really grappled with the text in a meaningful and soulful manner. (Thank you to this wonderful group of intelligent young people!).

So, as a result of my experience as a learner with this group, I considered the love story and what is really going on. To be sure there are many issues that bother and concern commentators in terms of the language, ambiguity of voice, mixed pronouns and so much else. But this year, I had a wholly (and holy, you might say) different insight and experience. What if Shir HaShirim reflects an intentional use of mixed metaphors, ambiguous references, changed pronouns, etc. to show how in a great love relationship the point is that two realities blur into one, in a symbiotic and wonderful way so that the dividing lines between the reality of each party are blurred and in so being such, joined together. Imagine two people who love each other immensely chasing/running to meet and then their silhouette appears as if it is one entity. Where does the one begin and the other end? This is the love we strive for…. With our life partners, our soul mates (called ahavat nafshi in the text); between parents and children and in other nuclear family relations on a different level; between best friends who truly understand each other and so on. To be clear, I am speaking here of relational intimacy, not sexual or physical, necessarily.

So what does it mean to blur the lines of our separate beings for the sake of our relationships with those we truly love? Isn’t this the point of the “chase” to love and be loved; and my contention is that it is precisely this chase that is found in the words of this beautiful text. To be sure, this is hard for many people to do. Clearly, we are taught the importance of being defensive and assertive about our clear identity and to not “lose ourselves.” I don’t think that this is what is at stake. I think that if we love so much, that we are willing to let go of our expectations for the other – the one we love so dearly – to enter our reality, and instead are willing to become part of theirs, what different and richer perspectives we may have. Prepare to be amazed as well as humbled!

So to move away from the text for a moment (but clearly my intention is to return), my personal life this year has been deeply colored by my father’s ongoing health concerns. As part of a variety of physical and other manifestations, he has some dementia at this point. It is more present some days than others, due to the various complications involved with managing his complex health care needs. A few weeks ago, my husband, one of our daughters and I went to be with him and my mother in the hospital. We try to be with them as often as possible, considering the distance between where we live outside of Philadelphia and their residence in Baltimore. We entered the hospital room and it was clear that this was going to be a day of confusion on the part of my dad. At other times when I would see this, I was so overwhelmed by what was going on, I would have to leave the room and cry it out before returning. This particular day, however, this was not the case. I felt strong and ready to be there with him!

My dad was somewhat agitated and I asked him what was wrong. He replied (from his lying position in his hospital bed) that he was making omelets and that the egg shells were on his hands and he could not get rid of them. I asked him if he wanted some help. He replied that he did so I placed my hands in a cup under his and “pulled the egg shells off his hands.” We did this several times, I helped him get the bowl to stir the eggs, get the onion skins off of his hands after he “finished cutting the onions” and otherwise assisted him with this vivid culinary scene in his mind, participating in his reality and stepping out of mine. My daughter, husband and mother looked on with varying degrees of puzzlement and understanding. My dad was happy and whole for a piece of time.

Back for a moment to my eleventh grade learning group and the text we were learning.

In Shir HaShirim, chapter 7, verse 1, we read:

שׁ֤וּבִי שׁ֨וּבִי֙ הַשּׁ֣וּלַמִּ֔ית שׁ֥וּבִי שׁ֖וּבִי וְנֶחֱזֶה־בָּ֑ךְ
Return, Return, (to) the state of being complete;
Return, return, lets us gaze at you

In this part of the great love story and the chase in trying to come together, the notion is that by returning to each other and embracing each one’s reality as one and the same, there is a completeness that can only be the product of a love and a loving relationship. I felt that completeness with my father. I remember vividly as a child when my dad, with great aplomb would prepare elaborate omelets. In his mind at this moment in the hospital room, that is where he was, nurturing and loving his family. And I, his daughter, for a few minutes, was right there with him.

Return, return to the state of being complete! I now have a completely new understanding of that verse and what it teaches about love …. True love between the A and B of your choice! For me, it helped me love my dad.

Please include Kalman HaLevi Ben Rachel in your prayers. Todah Rabbah!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

My Ongoing Confusion About Sefirah

I grew up as an observant pre-1975 Conservative Jew for whom Halacha was clearly the authority. As part of that upbringing I was acutely aware of the lack of music and celebrations between the Hagim of Pesah and Shavuot, those days known as the Counting of the Omer, or Sefirat HaOmer. This was not merely a function of my mother’s Orthodox background and the fact that she was the Morah D’atra of the home, but also the fact of the matter was that this was universally observed in our congregational community’s world.

Now, after living squarely in the center of the Orthodox community for my entire adult life, Sefirah has become quite the curious time for me. Some people only observe the restrictions with which I was brought up from after Rosh Hodesh Iyyar, others stop the restrictions at Lag B’Omer, and still others count a certain number of days. These Sephardim to this, those Ashkenazim do that. I even remember one wedding years ago on Yom HaShoah, clearly not observed at all by the Orthodox community in which the wedding was held. All I know is that I have gone to festive parties, weddings and other celebrations during a period of time that was basically quiet and void of these things when I grew up…. So, it is clearly understood that I am confused.

It is a confusion that I can, and obviously do, live with. That is not the problem. It is the lesson of this confusion that I find so curious. We actually know that if a family in our Orthodox community has a simcha and their celebration occurs on a day which is during the period of restrictive behaviors that we observe as the standard that I have known my whole life, we are able to join with them – that is to yield to their minhag, their custom, while temporarily suspending ours in order to join in the simcha, an important mitzvah in its own right. What a wonderful way to build community and to show that in the end we are all connected to each other enough that we can put aside such personally held observances, and even stringencies, dare I say.

My question is why we can not apply this to other areas of our life. We, who are so lenient on this point, which was admittedly difficult and uncomfortable for me (and I think still is to some degree), will not budge one bit on other matters, which are probably analogous, or even less profound. For example, there are specific matters of personal stringencies of Kashrut that, while important to the individual, need not be fodder for embarrassment of others in the community. The extension of what is mukseh (not to be touched for purposes of improper use) on Shabbat is one of my personal favorites. Years ago, my children and their friends were playing nicely when a neighbor really overreacted to their personal understanding of whether or not it was proper for ME to allow MY children to play with Connectix (which are yielding only temporary connections between pieces, and therefore, in our understanding do not quality as mukseh – truly a whole other discussion), but trust me, not anywhere near the cause for the reaction and concern it caused.

We are a community and I continue to believe that G-d is much more lenient on what we forego as individuals to make that community than are many members of the community. Ironically, it is these very members of the community who often have their semachot during the time that was “black out time for celebratory events” in my younger years. No problem – I am glad to celebrate with them. I just wish others would agree that it is more important to live as a whole and caring community than to not be willing to yield when G-d is!