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!

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Oh the people we meet….

No this is not about Dr. Seuss, as much as we have all enjoyed his oh so valuable contribution to our individual and collective literary development. What this is about is – the wonderful people who have been part of my life in different chapters with whom I have reconnected recently. A college roommate whom I hope to see in a few months when Ken and I are in Atlanta, a best friend from college with whom I have promised myself to have a phone conversation soon simply ecause I have mentioned him to so many people recently, a wonderful friend whom I met in my twenties who just spent Shabbat with Ken and me and her husband, some Orthodox Rabbis whom I have always liked best as a result of some work I am presently doing for ESHEL, two friends from separate parts of my high school life who ended up marrying each other not so long ago and with whom I had a wonderful dinner a few months ago, and so it goes.

I have truly been blessed with so many people in my life and so many different venues and communities of which I have been part. I never separate easily and remember such sadness when it was the last day at a school I was leaving, or the end of a work assignment or when I realized I was not going to an annual retreat called CAJE any longer after 28 years of consistent attendance. So, imagine, how excited when these wonderful people circle back in my life. It definitely gives me a sense of the many places I have been (thanks again for the reference, Dr. Seuss!)

My eldest daughter has friends in her life from high school and even earlier, all the way back to her earliest years as a very young child. I really love that. It is even more meaningful to me when I myself have various degrees of friendship with the parents of these thirty-somethings! And now their children – the third generation – are friends. This is one of the profound blessings I have in my life for which I am so grateful. It is the friendships that I have had consistently for decades that truly make me feel grounded. How much fun it is to be in a room with people I have known so long and to realize that my husband of 22 years is one of my “newer friends,” which does still happen from time to time.

Years ago, someone I know was so distraught when a member of her community, an occasional friend, died suddenly. I distinctly remember her saying that they were going to get together and it never happened. Oh yes, I definitely have those friends with whom I play phone tag trying to arrange time together and of course, we are all busy. Nonetheless, it is so wonderful and so grounding to know that these people are in my life and that I can reach out to them, whether it is a childhood friend who lives in Nevada and talk on the phone while decades can just vanish as do the miles that separate us geographically.

I love pretty and well decorated environments and do indeed take pride in the beautiful home that my husband and I have created along with our four children and now two spouses and three members of the next generation – Yoella’s (that eldest daughter) girls. That being said, I have always claimed that I would rather be judged or thought of not for the materials in my environment but for the people there. And it is clear that these people I have met in so many chapters of my life are still here…. And this gives me so much hope for continued chapters of sharing and growing for all of us. And yes, I will call my friend from college soon!!!! Why don’t we all think about those people in our lives and do the same?