Sunday, December 27, 2015

So what’s one more New Year among friends?

Appropriately enough, I guess, I am learning Masechet Rosh HaShanah in my daily Gemara learning. In the Jewish calendar there are four recognized new years, occurring in the months of Nisan, Elul, Tishrei and Shevat. In the discussions that appear in the Talmud it is suggested that there may be as much as six new years – for a variety of reasons including the official calendar of kings, for the fruits of the trees, for accounting of all that we have and for judgment for all that we are. Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur – clearly the most well known of the new years in the Jewish calendar is what is focused on in this aptly named section of Talmud, called after Rosh HaShanah, the beginning of the year of human accounting.

The Rabbis discuss how often we are called to account for what we do by God, our Creator. Various options are again presented (you know the joke, two Rabbis, three opinions… well, we see its origins in the Gemara!) with no less than the notion presented that actually we are called to account for our actions every minute of every day. It is known that Jewish communities come to God asking for forgiveness for our missteps on Yom Kippur, the Day of Judgment; but we would do well to remember that actually in the daily prayer that we say three times each day – the Amidah, we constantly ask God to forgive us for such slights we have committed in the various daily dealings of our lives. I actually feel so comforted that God is always listening to and attentive to our deeds and I guess that is a huge part of what it means to be a person of faith.

A Rabbi in our community shared that automatically it occurred to this community leader to wish people who were observing Christmas a Happy Erev Christmas! I love it… Jewish mindset and accepting and cherishing of others wrapped up in one heartfelt greeting. Another Rabbi indicated in the shul calendar that we have two Federal Holidays this week. How true! We as Americans are embraced by (or caught, depending on one’s predisposition) the joyful time of another faith community and culture that is so much a part of the country that accepts us all.

So what is my ritual at this time? I start practicing writing 2016 – I actually am so good at it this year, I mistakenly used 2016 on documents I have signed when it is still 2015. Oops! But more importantly, what will be my greeting to everyone I meet this week? Of course, it will be Happy New Year! Why not? I know that not all in our faith community of observant Jews agree with this. But I think it is indeed something to celebrate – that we live in this world as free people of faith, enjoying more and more inclusiveness on so many levels and the other fruits of democracy and the free-thinking world. Of course, we must also fully acknowledge and be accountable for the fact that this is clearly not the case for all citizens of the world. So here comes our prayers – to make us more caring, more embracing, and closer to the ideal people of faith we are all enjoined to be, whatever Higher Being we hold to be ours.

So what would the Rabbis in the pages of my Gemara learning think about that? One of the distinctions that is often made is between kings and the kingship of the Jewish nation and those of the nations of the world. So, let’s consider that for a moment. As our calendar turns from 2015 to 2016 this coming Thursday night, let us pray for ALL nations and people of faith of our world that this year will bring more understanding, less pain and conflict and more acceptance of the need for all of us to live together. Is that worthy of yet another New Year? I believe it is… so from my own mindset of Jewish values and thinking, I wish you all a heartfelt HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!!!

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

What is YOUR normal?

As part of my preparations for a conference I am planning for the Orthodox Jewish population of the Greater Philadelphia area on February 28, 2016 which is entitled, Halacha and Community: Challenges and Approaches, I am reading a lot of materials these days about potentially marginalized groups whom we are obligated by Torah as much as our own ethical standards to include in our community. This has taken me to a reading prepared by a colleague of mine from many years of being part of a wonderful national community of Jewish educators, Rabbi Elliot Dorff. In his piece, “Meshanah HaBeriot” he envisions a new approach to thinking about disabilities and limitations. He imagines a world where the disabled or limited person is not the marginalized individual, but rather we all see ourselves as “temporarily abled” and bound to become disabled at some point. He talks about how we should accept and include everyone with his/her/their differences. I highly recommend this thoughtful piece which can be found here (

Rabbi Dorff entitles his paper with the words one says when one blesses God for making different people when we see someone who is visibly different. Yes, we bless God for our differences, our abilities, our disabilities, all of it! What a concept! What a different world this would be if we could be so aware of all of us, that no one would be disadvantaged because of disabilities or differences, but all would be included and embraced for their value and potential contributions to the collective. Yes, it’s a bit idealistic, in fact, a lot, and this, too, is acknowledged by my colleague!

Nonetheless, I was reminded of dear friends of ours from years ago, Ari and Stacy Goldberg, whose daughter Rina z’l, suffered from chronic health problems due to mitochondrial disease. Her theme was B+ (that is Be Positive!) and this young girl was a teacher to all who included her and accommodated her needs. Not only are we obligated to include all members in our community, we stand to learn so much about abilities, the challenges of disabilities, the resilience of spirit well placed, and the many blessings we have no matter what the challenges may be. Ari spoke so beautifully at Rina’s funeral about expecting to take one ride (a normal one, perhaps) with their daughter when Rina came into their lives; but ultimately finding a new and different normal when her various challenges presented. It is hard to continually be mindful of this, but we all know so many stories of HEROES who have shown us the way, precisely through their addressing of whatever disabilities, or different abilities, they may have.

Is it NORMAL to expect that there will not be deficits, impairments, weaknesses and such in our bodies and as we progress through life? Of course not! It is here that Rabbi Dorff challenges us to think of ourselves, when appropriate as “temporarily abled.” This turns the table on disabilities in a powerful psychological way. He also addresses the obvious financial and logistical dynamics of what it would take to truly build such a society. Earlier this year, Knoxville, Tennessee made the news by becoming an official “dementia-friendly community,” so that people with various memory impairment conditions (e.g. Alzheimer’s, etc.) could function in a safe and supportive environment. Having recently dealt with my own parents’ decline during the past several years, I was particularly touched by this notion and wonder if it is indeed feasible for us to engage in more such efforts.

What is normal? Last night I was enjoying a reunion with some friends from different stages in my life. During our lovely dinner, it was pointed out to me that another person from my past was sitting several tables away. I would never have recognized her as she has had serious health problems due to a hemorrhagic stroke. My friend at the table was describing her recent wedding to her new husband and what an amazing experience it was to be there. Clearly, this is yet another example of considering a different normal. I hope that the future will give me a chance be in touch with this person and continue to feel the power of the blessing of having her and her family in my life in much younger years, when we were all able… and to continue to learn from her different “ableness.”

We are completing the cycle of the Torah readings of Bereshit, the book of Genesis at this season in the Jewish calendar. When I teach about the Patriarchs and Matriarchs and their family members, I DO focus on what their deficits and disabilities are. Sometimes, I am asked why THESE PEOPLE are our role models and my answer is that is precisely because of their being touched and feeling the full impact of the human condition that they are apt role models. We may lose our sight as Yitzchak, lose our physical strength as Yaakov, not be as strong mentally, spiritually or in other ways as people around us in our lives and so on. That being said, if we think of ourselves as “temporarily able” maybe, just maybe, we will be cognizant of the blessings we have and be more attentive to the many more we learn from each other as we all work through our assigned challenges.

May 2016 bring healing to all who need it and remind all of us to think of as many different types of normal as possible.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Lessons of Hannukah: A Little Bit of Oil Goes a Long Way

On Sunday, immediately after returning home from Israel, I attended and taught at a conference entitled Protecting Creation: A Jewish Response to Global Warming. The connection to the fact that on this very day we were all awaiting the onset of Hannukah, when we celebrate the miracle of a little bit of oil was not lost on me.

Hanukah has always struck me as a funny holiday in some ways – acknowledging the notion that a little bit of resources lasted for so long, both in terms of human resources in the Maccabbees and with respect to natural resources regarding the small flask of oil that lit the way for eight days; while so defined too often in our world today by excesses and wastefulness, including excessive packaging of too many gifts that we too often don’t even need. One could make a strong case that Hannukah is more about measuring and using our human and natural resources carefully and intentionally even though this is often the furthest thing from people’s minds. No doubt this is due in no small part to the influence of our larger commercial culture. Interestingly enough, I have heard many devout Christians also lament that the true meaning of their own days of observance at this season has lost traction in our materialistic world.

So, allow me for a moment to take a different look at some of the compelling lessons of Hannukah and really just about every moment in our Jewish lives in reminding us of our ongoing relationship with our world and Earth as well as our responsibility to care for it and use our resources appropriately.

Look at these texts carefully:

“When you besiege a city… do not destroy (lo tashchit) any of its trees…” (Deuteronomy 20:19)

Rav Zutra said: “Whoever covers an oil lamp, or uncovers a naphtha lamp, transgresses the law of bal tashchit.” (Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 67b)

“Righteous people … do not waste in this world even a mustard seed. They become sorrowful with every wasteful and destructive act that they see, and if they can, they use all their strength to save everything possible from destruction. But the wicked … rejoice in the destruction of the world, just as they destroy themselves.” (Sefer HaChinuch 529; 13th Century)

Clearly, we are taught here and in so many other texts to not be wasteful and to respect all facets of Creation at all times, including conflict, use of resources, and protection of our planet. This is more than relevant and profoundly necessary at this point in our human narrative. The practice of conservation and the notion that our resources are not limitless are well-established truths from long ago and frame the basic Jewish practice to not be wasteful, observing the body of laws known as Bal Tashchit.

Taking into account the notion that there is an increasing divide between the haves and the have nots in our world and the proliferation of initiatives of “giving back” during this holiday season so that those of us who have so much can show gratitude and share our bounty with others, what if we were all to give these lessons as gifts to those we love?

For many years, while my children were growing up, we participated in a wonderful program called Christian Children’s Fund and sent our monthly checks to support a family in Uganda. Every Hannukah I had a deal with my children. Whatever I would spend on them, we also spent on Beth Nikalanda, the child we sponsored and her family. We would send a check to CCF and then get letters back about how the same amount of money that supported our American Girl dolls (which are now parented by my daughter’s girls) bought lambs, blankets, grain and other supplies that supported this entire family. This, I believe was one of the lessons of gratitude and feeling the blessings of our lives for my children. This was most likely the most important Hannukah gift I gave them. We also came to have a great deal of respect for Beth in being so self-sufficient and skilled in working the land and helping her family to survive and thrive in their reality, where they HAD to be careful and mindful and intentional with their limited resources.

It is indeed a challenge to watch as less and less people have more and more and use their disproportionate amount of energy and resources while trying to be mindful of those in need and resources that are at risk. We are all so aware of the present work on Sustainable Development Goals in our world, various reports of climate change and global warming with 2015 taking its place as the hottest year on record. Yet, awareness is not enough; we have to carefully consider our own individual footprints and impact on these factors and how we can individually and collectively work to keep our world safe and protect the Creation, its light and all, that God entrusted to our care so long ago. This sensibility and the need for action is the most important gift we can give to those we love this Hannukah. Only then, will our small amount of oil go far enough for all to be sustained and live well. This is one important way we can perpetuate the miracle of Hannukah in our times.

If you are interested in more materials and resources, check these sites to learn more about this important aspect of our Chiyuv as protectors and workers of the planet.

Chag Urim Sameach – May the lights of the candles we look at this Hannukah remind us of the blessings in our lives and the need to hope for a better and more well used planet.