Friday, March 28, 2014

Why Adults Should Return to Elementary School

When did my balanced diet of life go completely off track? Well, maybe not completely but clearly enough to become scary. When did I risk becoming THAT person – you know, the workaholic that is so consumed with and by their work (as much as they might love it and feel passionate about it) that there is literally no time to smell the roses, or the appropriate equivalent for someone with my allergic life?

And love my work I do – teaching, learning, changing lives, creating and building new educational models – it has been a blast for 40 years!

So almost a year ago something happened that could have been (and was in its own right) devastating for me. Due to a bizarre set of circumstances completely not my doing, I found myself NOT EMPLOYED FULL TIME for the first time in my life! That’s right, not having to run from pillar to post 24/7 minus Shabbat and Hagim, which have their own rhythm of frenetic living (Thank G-d I am religious, otherwise I really might have ended up in a padded room!). Truly, my time was always work-family/children-Jewish observance based. In the meantime, our beautiful piano sits in our living room with nobody to play it, we have enough exercise equipment to count for a small personal gym, we live in a gorgeous area which just begs to be walked in, and I still want to take that art class.

One thing I have done is return to real serious learning of Gemara, which I love. I spend two hours five times a week just learning. It is restoring my soul and reminding me what I love so much about Judaism and this system of life, which is now between the text and its Tanaaim and Amoraim and me. This works much better for me than the distilled interpretations that abound around me in our world, too often far too simplistic or too particularistic for my taste. My two hours of daily learning is most assuredly one of my favorite things to do. It also makes me a much better teacher. I have always said that what I bring to my teaching is my passion for learning – and now I am engaged actively in that daily! My college, graduate school and adult students in the classes I now teach are definitely the beneficiaries. I am also writing and creating wonderful educational materials, which are equally enriched.

I have also been taking walks and using the exercise equipment and, of course, will resume my daily swimming once we re-open our pool. I am beginning to get back to a balanced diet of living – with relaxed reading, serious learning, some art and music, and physical activity along with wonderful family and community time. I am even learning to enjoy this and let go of the guilt for having the opportunity to live in this new intentional not-as-frenetic manner.

I have been thinking a lot lately of a very important lesson I learned in San Antonio, Texas many years ago. Our family was there for our annual Jewish Family Camp experience known as my professional CAJE conference and we went to a wonderful outdoor fair that was held annually there for artists, musicians, artisans, dramatists, and such. Here is the deal! In Texas, we were told, people are encouraged when they are in their 50’s to reclaim their passion – join a club, take on an artistic mode of expression, find a hobby and do it! And so they did – there were potters, woodworkers, weavers, musicians, and so much more! The idea was that by doing this, when the time comes to retire, Texans would have something to retire TO – doing something they love, maintaining a purposeful and vital life – and stay more healthy! But of course, clearly, those Texans are on to something.

So I have been instituting my own program right here in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania. I am balancing my life more evenly these days and am filled with gratitude that I have the option to do so. I am learning, reading, writing and creating, teaching, starting new communities and exercising. It is actually hard to get into this in a guilt-free way, but I am still working on that going on a year now. My next steps – reconnect with long-standing friends, start that art class and reintroduce myself to my piano!

Elementary school – part work—part play – part arts – here I come!

Monday, March 24, 2014

Parshat Shemini: Limits for All -- March 21, 2014

This week’s Parsha begins with the following words of VaYikra/Leviticus, chapter 9:

“1 And it came to pass on the eighth day, that Moses called Aaron and his sons, and the elders of Israel; 2 and Moshe said unto Aaron: 'Take a bull-calf for a sin-offering, and a ram for a burnt-offering, without blemish, and offer them before the LORD. 3 And unto the children of Israel thou shalt speak, saying: Take ye a he-goat for a sin-offering; and a calf and a lamb, both of the first year, without blemish, for a burnt-offering; 4 and an ox and a ram for peace-offerings, to sacrifice before the LORD; and a meal-offering mingled with oil; for to-day the LORD appears unto you.' 5 And they brought that which Moses commanded before the tent of meeting; and all the congregation drew near and stood before the LORD. 6 And Moses said: 'This is the thing which the LORD commanded that ye should do; that the glory of the LORD may appear unto you.' “

In these words we recount the consecration of the MISHKAN, the Tabernacle, which has just been completed. It was understandably a time of joy and celebration. The Kohanim are invested with their designated role, everyone is involved in the festivities and there are meaningful parts for all to play.

As we have read, Moshe instructs all, as he is empowered to do by dint of his position. The Kohanim now have their office and their portfolio to exercise. The B’nai Yisrael are also part of the celebration along with their elders. This is a shared climactic moment for all who have done so much to get to this point. So do we witness another round of the unmitigated joy we associate with our celebration of Purim earlier this week? You know – the holiday that includes in its narrative drinking to no limit, excesses of gold and silver and jewels and observed today by excesses in their own right!

Actually, not at all! There is a marked solemnity here. Why, we might ask? According to Sforno, there was no need for a MISHKAN when the SHECHINA, the PURE light and presence of G-d was continually accompanying the B’nai Yisrael on their journeys. However, as a result of the Egel HaZahav, it was subsequently necessary for a more tangible and visible presence of G-d due to the inherent weakness and basic human reality of the nation. So while there was great jubilation and a notable transition at this point of historical significance, we are also reminded that the MISHKAN was actually a diminished representation of the presence of G-d – not to say that G-d was any less present for this was not the case. But rather what Sforno and others are suggesting here is that while relating to and being part of the reality of the MISHKAN was joyful, it was tinged with sadness and perhaps disappointment in not having discerned the ongoing presence of G-d in G-d’s most basic and infinite SHECHINA form, but rather only through the vehicle of something tangible, the MISHKAN – though it was clearly a more suitable substitute than the EGEL HAZAHAV of earlier.

So what is the lesson here? Simply, G-d is infinite and without limits; and mortals are finite and limited. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks spoke about this inner struggle of limits in his comments on last week’s Parsha regarding Moshe at this juncture. He teaches us as follows:

“After the sin of the golden calf, Moses had—at G d’s command—instructed the Israelites to build a sanctuary, which would be, in effect, a permanent symbolic home of G d in the midst of the people. By now the work is complete, and all that remains is for Moses to induct his brother, Aaron, and his sons into office. He robes Aaron with the special garments of the high priest, anoints him with oil, and performs the various sacrifices appropriate to the occasion. Over the word vayishchat, “and he slaughtered [the sacrificial ram],” there is a shalshelet … [a particularly elongated trop which only appears four times in the Torah] indicat[ing] there was an internal struggle in Moses’ mind. But what was it? There is not the slightest sign in the text that suggests that he was undergoing a crisis. “Yet a moment’s thought makes it clear what Moses’ inner turmoil was about. Until now, he had led the Jewish people. Aaron, his older brother, had assisted him, accompanying him on his missions to Pharaoh, acting as his spokesman, aide and second-in-command. Now, however, Aaron was about to undertake a new leadership role in his own right. No longer would he be a shadow of Moses. He would do what Moses himself could not. He would preside over the daily offerings in the Tabernacle. He would mediate the avodah, the Israelites’ sacred service to G d. Once a year, on Yom Kippur, he would perform the service that would secure atonement for the people from its sins. No longer in Moses’ shadow, Aaron was about to become the one kind of leader Moses was not destined to be: a high priest… “He is about to induct his brother into an office he himself will never hold. Things might have been otherwise—but life is not lived in the world of “might have been.” He surely feels joy for his brother, but he cannot altogether avoid a sense of loss. Perhaps he already senses what he will later discover: that though Moses was the prophet and liberator, Aaron will have a privilege Moses will be denied—namely, seeing his children and their descendants inherit his role. The son of a priest is a priest. The son of a prophet is rarely a prophet.”

G-d, in G-d’s infinite wisdom has created each of us with both a simultaneous capacity for great heights and also limits that will mitigate the degree to which we actually achieve our goals in life. Moshe recognized this according to Rashi, who states that THE ELDERS are mentioned here in the context of being told by Moshe that Aaron, not him, will hereon instruct them in matters of religious significance and worship practice. Moshe is probably feeling both his responsibility as G-d’s chosen spokesperson here but is also aware that he is enabling the recognition of a leadership role he and his children will never hold. This notion of accepting limits within the context of leadership is clearly a novel one; not shared by others in the ancient world in which absolute power was the general model. It is still a challenge for many in our world today.

Shortly after this account with its many instructions and ritual practices and participation of all, we read about a most unfortunate incident. Chapter Ten of VaYikra begins as follows:

“1 And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them. 2 And there came forth fire from before the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD. 3 Then Moses said unto Aaron: 'This is it that the LORD spoke, saying: Through them that are nigh unto Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.' And Aaron held his peace.”

As we recall, after the Egel HaZahav, immediately there is a “correction” by providing a concrete representation of the presence of G-d due to the inability of the B’nai Yisrael to relate to G-d’s infinite and limitless nature. Now, after establishment of the complex and highly elevated ceremonies and sacrifices associated with the sanctification of the MISHKAN and the office of the KOHANIM, look what happens. Aaron’s sons offer an ASH ZARAH that was NOT commanded by G-d. They go beyond their limits and there are dire consequences as a result. Why? Many suggest that this was unfair as they were just trying to join in the festivities and exercise their office as Kohanim in glorifying G-d. What could possibly be wrong with that? The problem is that the words “And G-d commanded them” are missing – they took this initiative on their own, not observing instructive limits.

While some may like to think of this as creativity, let us understand that not observing limits is not the same thing. WE ARE NOT NOR CAN WE BE NOR DO WE KNOW HOW TO BE LIMITLESS…. Only G-d as The Creator of All can and is!

It is poignant to note that it is after this narrative that there are specific limits placed on Kohanim regarding their participation in various daily involvements and on all of B’nai Yisrael as well…. Namely known as the laws of Kashrut.

As we move through the Torah we see this constant pattern of permission granted – excesses and not observing limits – setting of more limits. There is an important lesson and message here for all of us. Let us take note of recent years and various statements in our community about the dangers of some of the observances and celebrations that are associated with Purim. The very name of the annual carnival that was held in Israel for so many years is ADLOYADAH, taken from the actual text and the words that indicate that the drinking was so plentiful, until the point of no knowledge (of what????). NOW, our Rabbis make sure that people are sober for the reading of the Megillah that we are all OBLIGATED to hear, NOW our Jewish community is realizing that excessive drinking to the point of not knowing what is going on – ADLOYADAH – is not, nor has it ever been either the intention of our Purim celebrations for community nor in the best interest of its individuals.

Human beings are such that we want to extend beyond our capacity. Our laws of Torah set limits so that we reach our capacity in an appropriate manner but do not extend beyond our proper human and mortal abilities. Moshe Rabbeinu had come to represent too much to the B’nai Yisrael who then create an idol in his absence. We are then instructed to build the MISHKAN and Moshe formally hands over the office of religious and ceremonial leadership to Aaron and his sons. Aaron’s sons abuse that office after which G-d once again commands Moshe to provide additional instructions for both the Kohanim and the B’nai Yisrael. And as we celebrate the completion of the Mishkan in reading this week’s Parsha, let us remember that with each granted permission comes limits for all!

Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, March 14, 2014

A Thought or Two for Shabbat Zachor and Purim, 2014

So my husband, Ken and I just returned from our wonderful ESHEL community retreat. We are a group of Orthodox parents of LGBTQ members of our larger religiously observant Jewish community. The theme was about hiding, as we were beginning to think about the fun costumes, hats and masks that we CHOOSE to don for Purim in celebration of the great victory of right over oppressive!

As I sit here hours before the beginning of Shabbat Zachor when we read about the Amalekites and what they did so wrong to our people, after which Purim begins tomorrow night, I am filled with gratitude.

I am grateful that our family lives in this space and place so our daughter Rachie can be her totally integrated religiously observant gay self who is also an awesome professional really trying to and MAKING important differences in our world.

I am grateful for all of our family and friends who validate Rachie and us as members of our community. This gives us strength to accept those who do not, and this is okay. Really! We hope that as time goes on, this too will change.

I am grateful for how awesome our children are and how Ribbonu shel Olam has guided us in raising them to have strength of conviction and strong sense of presence.

I am grateful for the growing understanding in our entire Jewish community and world in accepting G-d’s work and rejoicing with each other.

I am grateful for ESHEL for providing us, and others like us with a community, with a truly wonderful KEHILAH.

And as we approach Shabbat Zachor, I am REMINDED of all of these wonderful things in our lives. I will also listen intently as I always do to the reading about the Amalekites who attacked the Israelites from behind, compromising their most vulnerable community members, those who needed protection and understanding.

We often speak about other Amalekites who have risen throughout our history with such attacks. As we all listen this Shabbat Zachor (Shabbat of Remembering) to this reading, let us remember to NOT act as the Amalekites, as we will read in a few weeks to NOT act like other peoples who maligned and compromised us (the Egyptians in the case of the upcoming Torah readings) – and let us act instead as Balaam saw us, as a people who live harmoniously and with respect and regard for each other.

Let us remember that there are still communities in our Orthodox world in which members MUST WEAR MASKS, not because of the fun of Purim but as a result of the fear of rejection and exclusion just because G-d made them the way G-d made them.

Let us all work together to accept and value each other, to insure that masks put on are for fun and not because of pain, and to remember that we are all part of KLAL YISRAEL and are enjoined to act as such.

For such efforts we all make in this shared task, I am grateful.

Shabbat Zachor Shalom and Chag Purim Sameach to all!

Friday, March 7, 2014

Pope Francis Flips the Conversation – A Model for All

There has been a lot of conversation in the Catholic world as of late. Pope Francis is being toted as a Pope like none other. He is speaking about the foundational value of Christian love and grace for all members of the Church. He is applying those core concepts of his Catholic faith heritage and community to conversations about women’s roles, same sex couples and other topics that have long been fodder for great conflict and consternation in the church. He is what one commentator called “flipping the conversation,” that is focusing on individuals and their rights and well being within the rubric of the Church and its standards. Conversations are now about commitment ceremonies and rights for same-sex couples, not about marriage per se. His supporters applaud his forward and compassionate thinking and approach while his detractors say he is too vague and obtuse and not going far and fast enough with changes! As I see it, he is appropriately negotiating the tenuous balance beam both maintaining the integrity of the Church while applying the values of the Church to life in the real lane. The change that he is looking to make will hopefully be well planted within the Church and lasting. In order for this to happen, as I always say, we cannot change in five minutes what took years, decades, even centuries to evolve into our present reality.

I think it is important to note that what he is doing is so consistent with core Jewish principles of Halacha as well in showing compassion and caring for each other regardless of, even in spite of, our differences in beliefs, levels of inclusion and such. I know that I am sometimes so disappointed and sad with the conflation of so many different elements in critical concerns connected to Pikuach Nefesh – saving and preserving the sanctity of life of all members of our entire community – that conversations too often are about politics, personal sensibilities and everything BUT this well being and sanctity of life we are to value above all else. I have personally been accused by some in Orthodox circles of going against Halacha in supporting and teaching this position.

I love the notion that Halacha (Jewish Law) and Halicha (the way we go and move and walk) come from and are the same Hebrew root and word. This conveys a very important message to me -- that Halacha and Halicha move together in a symbiotic manner, maintaining both the standards of Law and the reality of human nature of those living by its dictates. It is this dialectic that I witness daily during my study of Gemara. I am consistently heartened by the argumentation in our Talmud over precisely this point, jockeying between stringent and more lenient decisions on so many manners out of concern for the individuals who are observing the law. Further, so often these discussions end with TEKU, meaning – Let the argument, and the various practices represented stand. We will move on! What a great sentiment, why can’t we all continue to use that thinking today?

Many times in the Tanach, G-d is frustrated with the Israelites and calls them on the carpet, so to speak, for exactly that – being so wrapped up with the specifics of the place, the sacrifices, the worship rites and other details of the laws, that they forget the needs of the people right in front of them, and in the words of the prophet, “will sell the poor for a pair of shoes.” G-d is quite clear through the mouthpiece of these Prophets of Social Justice. DO NOT BOTHER WITH THE RITUAL UNTIL YOU WORK ON YOURSELVES AND HOW YOU TREAT AND SHOW CONCERN FOR EACH OTHER.

Maybe Pope Francis is responding to so much history in our world where this has been lost. Maybe he is trying to remind us of this basic religious tenet of Catholicism. That is the purpose of grace and compassion.

And for us as Jews … we are often reminded that one of G-d’s many names is RACHMANAH, Compassionate One. Let us continue to flip our own conversation and learn to follow G-d’s lead, showing this compassion for each other; the rest will follow!

Tuesday, March 4, 2014


So life is always busy and hectic and we are all wrapped up in so many details and aspects of daily life. Fortunately for my family and for so many, there is that weekly STOP SIGN called Shabbat … not to say that it does not carry its own hectic rhythm … for example, this past week we actually ran a Shabbaton at our home. But that being said, it is a different type of hectic. We are taught that the beauty of the Shabbat Queen should remind us and give us a taste of what Gan Eden and the World to Come can be.

And in the meantime, there is always….. meditation! We all do it in different ways. In fact I just read several pages of Masechet Shabbat (in the Talmud) that included various incantations (mantras?) that would be used for healing and such. This is not to exclude Prayer but rather can be and often is part of it.

So we are all learning in our contemporary reality the value of resting, pausing, stopping to take stock, and so on. I remember years ago Peninnah Shram, a wonderful story teller, teaching that Rabbi Steve (yes, before he was known as Shlomo) Riskin showed her a wonderful meditation….. on a word we all know, SHEMA. Imagine that! The first word of prayer that we teach our youngest children – an expression of meditation?! Who knew??? So here goes. Look at the sounds included: SH(shin) --- M (mem) --- AH (ayin)! Now we know that the two-letter root of Mem-Ayin means innards (or the Jewish/Yiddush word KISHKES!). And here is the mediation …. We say Shhhhhhh (that is to be quiet) MAH (my innermost parts)… so we can SHEMA -- listen to G-d. What a simple and beautiful idea. Inhale SHHHHHHH; now exhale MMAAAAAAHHHHHH. And we do it slowly and intentionally!

There are certain books I decide to read over and over again from time to time because they are seminal books (like As A Driven Leaf by Milton Steinberg) or because they are just relaxing and center me when life is hectic (like Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert). Guess which book I am reading now. Here is a hint. Guess where this excerpt is from.

“The other day a monk told me, ‘The resting place of the mind is the heart. The only thing the mind hears all day is clanging bells and noise and argument, and all it wants is quietude. The only place the mind will ever find peace is inside the silence of the heart. That’s where you need to go.’

‘I’m trying a different mantra, too. It’s one I’ve had luck with in the past. It’s simple, just two syllables.

‘Ham-sa (soft h, like ummm…..)

In Sanskrit it means ‘I am that.’

‘The Yogis say that Ham-sa is the most natural mantra, the one we are all given by God before birth. It is the sound of our own breath. Ham on the inhale, sa on the exhale’”

Okay, you have to have figured this one out. It is indeed the voice of Elizabeth Gilbert (p. 141 of her book which I highly recommend as soulful reading).

Parenthetically Ham-sa also somewhat resembles the word for Chamsa, different root meaning “five,” but with the eye of the soul as the central part of the amulet, one cannot ignore the proximity of the sound.

So, imagine that…. The approximately same sound of She-Mah in reverse… the most natural sound, the tone and sense of our breath…. That G-d gave us. Does this sound at all familiar??????

I have done this meditation to Shema by the way and it is absolutely relaxing and internally focused ….. Be quiet innermost being so you can hear and be attuned, that is, really listen to G-d for G-d is in you as much as the breath that G-d gave you at Creation.

So it occurs to me in the quietude of this meditative journey that with all of the loud noises, contention and conflict in our world, is there something we can share in quietude and internal reflection?