Friday, July 31, 2015

And then there were the events of this past week in Israel… living with more Sinat Hinam on Tu B’Av

As we all decompress from the intensity of Tisha B’Av and the weeks that led up to it, here we sit Erev Shabbat on TU B’AV, the day of thinking about loving relationships and our connections to each other. Instead of finding comfort in thinking about these wonderful relationships in our lives, we are reeling from this past week in Israel – one self identified religious individual stabbed several people at the Gay Pride March in Jerusalem and other self identified religious individuals killed a Palestinian baby as a so-called “payback” action.

So in my last post I addressed that embezzling is clearly against Jewish law. SO IS MURDER AND PURPOSELY ENDANGERING THE LIFE OF ANOTHER. So much so that we are taught that protection of life and saving a person from even the potential of danger trumps so many of our ritual practices. For those who cannot fast for medical reasons, their observance of Tisha B’Av and other fast days is not in any way compromised. If a baby boy born to the most religiously observant family has health complications that preclude having a Brit Milah, you save that baby first! If you are walking on Shabbat and you see a fallen building and there might be a person caught in it to save, you go and try to save them – Jew or non-Jew, of any age!

From where do those who commit such despicable acts of violence get their sense that this action or taking or threatening life is acceptable in any way according to Halacha? Seriously, I would love to try to understand this because it makes no sense – not in terms of Halacha and Jewish observance as I know and live it. As I read the various opinion and reporting pieces about the parade in Jerusalem that was respectful, did not go to any sites that are considered controversial and so forth, I could not help but think of the writings that occurred after Yigal Amir killed Yitzchak Rabin z’l. After the act, Rabbis and leaders were talking about the harm of Sinat Hinam (causeless hatred) and how we have to be careful not to teach this in our synagogues, in our schools and other educational settings as well as homes and larger communities.

Where are the Rabbis and leaders of these communities now? Where is their outrage? What is being taught to their students and their community members? I want to be very clear that I am NOT maligning entire communities; I am respectfully asking WHO and WHERE are the teachers and leaders who are engendering this sense of self-righteous indignation in their charges? It is a fair question. It is a question that Jewish law DEMANDS that we ask as we are taught that students who carry out their teachers’ incorrect or damaging teachings bring shame not only to themselves but to those responsible for such misleading messages.

As a Jewish educator, I have heard too many times “Oh there is no bullying in our wonderful religious Jewish community or school or camp.” And, surprise, there is. I know because I am closely involved and invested in too many lives that were subjected to such bullying, including words, spitting, Lashon Hara, hitting, being thrown to the ground, beaten up and so on. This is NOT a matter of “boys will be boys” or girls will be …. I know families who have moved out of religious communities because of these problems that are not being addressed. It is just wrong and EVERY SYNAGOGUE, SCHOOL, CAMP, ETC. THAT CONSIDERS ITSELF a religious educating institution of Jews of ALL ages MUST convey this message loud and clear and take serious steps regarding corrective actions and discipline!

How many more tragedies will it take before our religious educating institutions will do a true taking of their own accountability seriously (Heshbon HaNefesh, if you will)? Once again, as we go into Shabbat we mourn the deaths and pain of those who are harmed by the hands of those who claim to do so in the name of what they believe. It is time, actually way past time, for their and our community leaders to stand up and unequivocally state that this is wrong and AGAINST Halacha on every level.

Shabbat Shalom and a reflective Tu B’Av to all!

Monday, July 20, 2015

So in case you were wondering, yes, embezzling IS against Jewish Law

This may sound like an absurd statement. So, let me share where it comes from. Many years ago, a dear friend of mine who was a Prison Chaplain at the time, told me the following story. He was tasked with insuring that the Jewish prisoners had their needs met. This friend is a Conservative ordained Rabbi and interestingly enough he was dealing with a good number of individuals who were Orthodox in his “prison congregation,” an entire problem in and of itself for too many reasons, which I hope are obvious. Some of them insisted on giving him a really hard time, because he was “only Conservative” and how could he meet the needs of these “good law-abiding” Orthodox Jews? So he asked one of these gentlemen what he was in prison for and the response was “Embezzling, but that’s not against the Torah!”

Really!!!!!! So, I have completed learning Masechet Shekalim (Talmud Yerushalmi) this past Friday and continue to be amazed at how holistic and expansive the system of Jewish law – properly followed – is! So, my first recommendation to this “congregant” of my friend from so long ago would be to learn this Tractate or any number of others. Masechet Shekalim is about the group participation of the entirety of the Jewish nation in giving shekalim for the upkeep of the Temple, the community needs and so much else.

As always, there are ongoing “side” conversations that are actually quite foundational and central to the discussion at hand. In this case, such great measures are taken to insure that all funds that are given are designated and used for the indicated purpose. There is to be NO co-mingling or misappropriation of funds and no taking from one designated fund for the use of another. One cannot designate funds for one purpose and then change his or her mind and use them for another purpose. There are many stopgaps put in place to insure that this is done properly and with no indication or even the slightest possibility of impropriety.

When the designated treasurer goes to withdraw funds, there is even a prescribed manner in which they must dress, e.g. no long hair, no flowing clothes, no shoes, etc. Why? So that they cannot hide monies from the designated funds and also so that they should not even appear to be able to do so or to have benefitted in any way personally from this task that is on behalf of the community. In short, these tasks are KADOSH, that is sanctified and when one is acting on behalf of others, this is a sanctified responsibility that is not to be misused or abused in any manner for personal gain or otherwise. There is a lovely statement on 14b of this Tractate that goes “ All is to minimize the honor of the person and to maximize the honor of G-d.” This is to say that when one acts on behalf of the community, this is a task where one is to subdue one’s ego, not inflate it. That alone would be a worthy mantra for too many of our leaders in so many ways.

When there is a question or doubt regarding the status of money found, such as when coins are found on the ground between the containers of the various funds, there is also a formula for where they are put. When people are late in giving their shekalim, or they come from far away and cannot meet the indicated deadline, there are specific instructions for that as well. In short, NOTHING is left to question or personal decision. Everything is ever so carefully dictated to insure that funds given are used for their indicated purpose, those entrusted with their distribution do not use any for personal gain, and the community trust is not compromised.

In this situation and only in this set of circumstances, does G-d bless the work of the community and its members and leaders! This is something for all of us to consider. How do we act in a KOSHER and acceptable manner in our business lives and when others trust us with their resources? Perhaps our schools and Yeshivot should focus more on this most important aspect of Jewish Law! Maybe then our population of Orthodox Jewish prisoners would not be as problematic!

Monday, July 13, 2015

More from My Grandfather’s Blessings and Secrets About Them

In my last writing, I shared some insights from Rachel Naomi Remen M.D. and her wonderful book My Grandfather’s Blessings. I have since finished reading the book and it is indeed a wonderful meditative flow of thoughts, lessons and yes, blessings, indeed. I highly recommend it.

This of course leads me to consider what are the blessings of my own grandfather? As it turns out, I carry the name of my mother’s father (ergo, my own grandfather), but as I grew up and wanted to know more about him, all I and the rest of the family was told was that he was a no-good-son-of… Rather upsetting, especially given that without being too obtuse, let’s just say that I did not have the warm fuzzy set of relationships in my nuclear family of birth one likes to think about fondly. In many ways, I had to “grow myself up,” as my mother apologetically said to me during one of our painful discussions before the lights began to flicker in her mind as Alzheimers’ and dementia began to take over.

Forgive me if some of this is a bit obtuse, but out of respect for my family and given that I have been able to effect my own healing with the help of the family I have created (thank you Ken and wonderful children of ours) and some very close friends (some of whom I actually refer to as “siblings of choice”) and amazing relatives, I will not spill all of the family secrets here. I just want to make a point. The narrative we were given about my mother’s father was, shall we say, not honorable and not positive. On the other hand, my mom could never stop talking (and still can’t) about the amazing relationship she had with her sister and her mother and she insists that there is not a better mother or sister on the earth. While mom does speak in hyperbole, and has for as long as I can remember, I feel it safe to say that this reported family dynamic is the truth for her, as she has known it. With one major exception!

Just a bit of back-story. As it turns out, my mother’s father came over by himself to the United States around 1915 to escape the Tzar’s army and then brought his daughter (my Aunt Becky z’l) and his wife, Pearl z’l over to the United States about seven or eight years later. My mother was born shortly after Shmuel (who had since became Sam – think Hester Street, for those of you who have seen the movie) was reunited with his family. Then, sadly, they did not live as a family according to census reports as of 1925 (as I found some years ago with the help of my dear Aunt Sandy (my dad’s sister); and there was a fractured relationship with him. I have since found that I did not have NO relatives, but that he had brothers and there are at least two first cousins that my mom and her sister had and so much else… This is what I have discovered during the last several months, because apparently, …

As it turns out, there is an up side to Alzheimer’s if you will! The filters are off and the secrets come spilling out. Here is the general gist of what I have learned in the past several months through talking with my mom, and by that, I mean mostly listening as she talks and shares her memories (which at times, is her present). She speaks to me as if I am Becky, z’l, her beloved older sister. She tells me that she will share some things, but I have to promise NOT to ever tell Mama because she will be angry. I promise as she asks in her frightened voice (as if I am Becky, which for the purpose of this conversation I am)!

She tells me (aka Becky) that she can’t hold in these secrets any more. It’s been too many years. She confides that she has been visiting Papa at his store every Wednesday after school and on Saturdays (the Sabbath) she would walk over to see him. He would give her ice cream and they would chat for a long time. She loved him very much and he loved her very much. She had to hide this relationship from her sister and her mother because they were not the objects of his affection and would be angry with her. But, she tells me recently, this has been too much for her to hide, and over an hour or more, she recounts her life with and love for her father. But, she ends with - this MUST be a secret from Mama!

Mom breathes, cries a bit, and then is back in the present. I am Sunnie again. So I take my own deep breath and go for it. Mom, I ask, why did you name me after your dad? I was the first child, my dad’s mom had also died, but why did you choose to do this? I needed to know, being the child who in our family’s history and narrative was named for the no-good….

She looked at me and said something to this effect. “You have to understand, I LOVED Papa so much and he was never part of my family growing up. I NEEDED to have him as part of MY family!” So there you have it, I was BLESSED with my Grandfather’s name, the one that my mom loved so much and could not let anyone know. I received two blessings in this conversation. One, I now know that I was named for someone who my mother loved deeply; and two, the secret is no longer an albatross around the old narrative.

Shmuel aka Sam Weis aka Wise, I now know some of the things you did as a human being with failings and weaknesses. We are all human beings with failings and weaknesses. But I also now know how loved you were and how much you loved, and that I will always hold in my heart, and with your permission I will keep that a secret no longer. May your soul continue to rest with Ribbonu shel Olam and may the lessons learned in your life yield positive blessings for all.

Thursday, July 2, 2015


Scenario #1: This morning, we received a call from some guy at some bank wanting to speak with Ken about retirement. We chatted for a few moments since I was the one who answered the phone and I explained how we are both happy with what we are doing, and that retirement is not an immediate plan, though I got the sense he thought this may be the case. We are happy, productive, doing important things and plan to continue doing so for the foreseeable future.

Scenario #2: I am always learning, reading, preparing materials, writing, and … right, learning more! So I do like to keep a recreational read going as well. Last week, I went on the hunt through the thousands of books in our home to find such a book. I found an unlikely book (in the sense that this is so not what she reads) in my daughter Yoella’s room. Its title is My Grandfather’s Blessings and the author is Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D (New York: Riverhead Books, 2000). To be honest, its really not my kind of book either – a collection of 103 (according to my count, minus introductions and occasional asides) two to three page pithy essays about life, blessings, healing and all that good stuff – all of which I fervently believe in; I just enjoy a book with “more depth.” Ah, what is it they say, do NOT judge a book by its cover (or its table of contents)! I have really enjoyed this book which is about the many blessings in our lives, many of which we do not see, ignore or walk right past without a thought.

I will share the content of one essay with you, called interestingly enough (right, you guessed) Pearls of Wisdom. Rachel (as she calls herself throughout the readings so I will as well) explains how an oyster is “soft, tender, and vulnerable.” Precisely because of this, the oyster is in its shell for protection, but must keep the shell open so it can breathe. Within the cycle of breathing, because the oyster is on the ocean floor, grains of sand will come inside the shell, causing the oyster great pain. However the ocean floor is the home of the oyster and it cannot thrive anywhere else. So what does it do with these painful grains of sand? It wraps it in “thin translucent layers” and Voila! You have a pearl! A beautiful and sensitive and pure pearl! We then learn from our teacher, Rachel, that sand as well as the pain it causes is the way of life of the oyster. There really are not other choices that are viable. So a beautiful thing of beauty comes from that which causes the oyster pain. She then explains that these places of pain “are the places where wisdom begins to grow in us. It begins with suffering that we do not avoid or rationalize or put behind us.” Our capacity to understand and accept this will contribute greatly to our lives. And all of this was stated in less than two pages. Hmmmm….

Scenario #3: Yesterday in my Gemara learning (Masechet Shekalim, actually from the Talmud Yerushalmi for those who wonder), I read something that I found rather amazing. There is a discussion about the use of community funds (shekalim – a coin of designated worth – and other offerings that are made as well) for the upkeep and needs of the community and its ritual as well as pragmatic functions. In the midst of this discussion it is posited that community funds should be designated for headstones for graves. Within the various concerns related to this need, it is suggested that the most pious and righteous teachers do not need headstones on their graves because we remember and honor and continue to learn from them through their words and teachings that their students and future generations of those who have learned from their wisdom teach us.

So here are my lessons from today:

1. Pearls of wisdom are found even in places we do not expect if we are open to learning from them; and in so doing we keep important people alive and their teachings relevant and part of our daily realities.

2. We are all obligated and enjoined to pass on our teachings and learnings and gleanings of what we have learned to others so that our legacy remains part of the world.

3. Maybe the reason Ken and I do not speak about retirement is because there is a sense of purpose in our lives daily from doing just this.

Truly we are blessed and these blessings come from paying attention closely and living ….. yup, you guessed it, INTENTIONALLY!