Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Where Dark and Light Meet: The Winter Solstice

Sometimes images say so much more than we could ever say in words.

As I write, on the morning of December 21, the winter solstice has just taken place. In addition to being the shortest day of the year – and the longest night – it marks the moment when the earth is the farthest away from the sun and the first official day of winter. Even though we know what we are in for, weather-wise, our days will be getting a little longer and lighter from here. A lovely thought, yes?

But what made this year's solstice unique, is that it coincided with a lunar eclipse. A complicated confluence of dark interrelating with light. In her blog Rabbi Jill Hammer, Tel Shemesh: Celebrating and Creating Earth-Based Traditions in Judaism (http://telshemesh.org/) she writes that the darkness "is fertile. As the vine of the year climbs upward, the month of Shevat arrives—the time when sap begins to run in the trees (usually corresponding to January or February). In Israel, flowers begin to bloom. According to Hai Gaon, a 9th century sage, in Shevat God throws three coals into the world to warm the air, the water, and the earth. Soon Tu B’Shevat, the festival of trees, will arrive to proclaim that life is running through the veins of the world, warmed by the returning sun."

If you have 3 or 4 minutes, click on this link. The footage was taken by a Floridian and posted on YouTube. I particularly liked this because it shows the moon – in brilliant reds – without any words or sound. You can create your own solstice imagery and/or conclusions. Enjoy.


Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Art that Rabbi Andrea London Inspired

On Rising

by Dina Elenbogen

Rest your head on sacred stone

Awaken to the faces of angels

Wrestle your way to a new name

A house with veiled windows

Awaken to the faces of angels

Whisper your way to abandoned air

A house with veiled windows

Where sparrows land and ascend

Whisper your way to abandoned air

Language rises, a mist of flying geese

Sparrows land and ascend

Take the names of angels

Language rises, a mist of flying geese

In the paths of mother birds

Who take the names of angels

Before they reappear

In the shadows of mother birds

Who fly beyond broken clouds

Before they reappear

On ladders to open windows

Who fly beyond broken clouds

Land in a house of worship

On ladders to open windows

Between words and the unspoken

Land in a house of worship

Where we come face to face

Between words and the unspoken

Rest our heads on sacred stone.

The following snippets are taken from Dina Elenbogen’s words describing the inspiration behind her poem and Jane Weintraub’s sculpture created for Rabbi London’s recent installation.

“On Rising is a pantoum, a Malaysian form, popularized by French poets, where the second and forth lines of one stanza become the first and third of the next. The first line becomes the last line of the poem, though slightly altered. I like the momentum that this form offers and hoped the patterns would speak to Andrea’s love of numbers and puzzles. I sent a draft to Jane and watched her amazing sculpture grow out of it.

… The first image that came to me was that of rising to a new place. Along with our rabbi and this momentous occasion, I thought first of our patriarchs Moses and Abraham and their moments of rising and setting forth. The first draft of my poem was filled with shadows of these patriarchs as well as images of clouds, stones and Biblical birds.”

Finally and most significantly, I went back and read about Jacob’s dream of the angels as well as other Jacob moments in Genesis and realized that he would be the central patriarch of the poem and that Moses and Abraham could rise and wander elsewhere. I liked that Jacob was our third patriarch ( and our parsha of installation Shabbat) and Andrea our third Senior rabbi.

… As the poem progressed, Jacob’s presence faded into the background but he remained a central force, particularly in the opening line that echoes Jacob falling asleep on a stone before he awoke to angels. In the last line of the poem the “you” shifts to “we,” from the leader to the people, from the rabbi to the entire congregation …The poem continued to go through many drafts but I had to be careful; something as simple as changing sparrows to geese could throw off an entire sculpture. I kept the central images but the language continued to shift until finally and fortunately, Jane set it in stone.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

A Hanukah Tale

One of my favorite stories of the Hanukah season is “The Enchanted Menorah,” by Howard Schwartz. It is adapted here:

On the Friday during Hanukah, just before sundown, Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer – who would later become known as the Baal Shem Tov and a very mystical rabbi indeed - wandered into the nearby forest to meditate among the trees and study the flora and fauna.

Before he left, Rabbi Eliezer had said to his wife, “With God’s help, I will return home in time to light the first menorah candle. But if I am late, don’t wait for me. Light the candle and place the menorah in the window.”

Just as he was about to return home, a blizzard raged and darkness fell. Rabbi Eliezer struggled to make his way through the storm, but he was lost. He walked and walked, but kept returning to the same spot in the woods. He could not find the path that led back to his home.

But because he trusted God, he did not lose faith. He was only upset that he would not be able to light the candles on Hanukah.

The rabbi became so exhausted from his struggle that he sat down to rest and fell asleep. While he slept, a tall old man with a candle in his hand appeared.

“Who are you,” the rabbi asked.

The old man replied, “I am Mattathias, father of the Maccabees, and I have brought this candle for you.”

At this, the rabbi awoke and was able to make out the shape of a person in the swirling snow, who was holding a menorah in his hand with one candle burning, one much like the rabbi’s own.

Rabbi Eliezer followed this figure and the light coming from the flame. He walked for hours, never letting it out of his sight. Soon he recognized the fields and trees, his own village and then, his house. In the window, was the clear and bright flame from the candle’s light.

“Thank God you have come home,” said his wife, as she ran out to greet him with tears of happiness and relief running down her face. “When it became dark,” she said, “ and you hadn’t returned, I lit the first candle myself. But no sooner did I light it than the menorah and candle vanished from the window.”

Rabbi Eliezer understood that Mattathias had removed the menorah from the window and used it to guide Rabbi Eliezer home. He told his wife about his dream – about the silent figure who had guided him through the forest. As they approached the house, he rabbi pointed to the window and saw that the menorah had been restored to its place. And the flame glowed brightly in the night sky.

All of us struggle with some form of darkness - whether it comes from ourselves or the outside world. Hanukah reminds us not to fight with the shadows but instead, to light a candle and dissolve the darkness. Over the course of eight days, light overpowers the darkness. We can see far beyond the candles themselves. So when darkness looms, Hanukah seems to be saying, make more light.

Adapted from “The Enchanted Menorah” from The Day the Rabbi Disappeated: Jewish Holiday Tales of Magic.

Tell our your favorite Hanukah story. Or send a link to your favorite Hanukah song or video.

A few to get you in the mood:



Candlelight – The Maccabeats


Light Up the World – Peter Himmelman


Adam Sandler's Original Hanukah Song


Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Betsy's Prayers

Beth Emet's own Betsy Fuchs has created a stirring collection of prayers. Go to www.BetsysPrayers.com to draw inspiration from Betsy’s prayer-journey, as she rediscovers the value and beauty of some traditional Jewish prayers and biblical psalms.

Caught on Video: Beth Emet, in Motion

If you couldn’t make it to Beth Emet for Rabbi London’s installation festivities last weekend, you’ll get a small taste of the fun in this short video.

Saturday’s celebration was full of delicious food, delightful conversation and divine ruach!

Staff Toast


And you don’t want to miss this short film and interviews of Beth Emet clergy, staff and congregants by Jordan Selch.

Beth Emet by Jordan Selch


Sunday, November 7, 2010

Out of the Mouths of (Beth Emet) Babes

Last Sunday, I substituted for Janet Reed’s third grade religious classes at Beth Emet. With two fabulous assistants, (thank you, Aaron and Tess) and play scripts for as a lesson plan (thank you, Janet ), we were all in for a treat.

The play focused on the Jacob and Esau story. Jacob is sent to Haran when he learns that his brother Esau is en route with 400 men. There, Jacob sleeps with his head on a rock in the desert, wrestles with an Angel and has the vision of The Ladder. When the brothers meet, after years of hatred between then, instead of bloodshed, there is … a hug. I believe it’s the only hug mentioned in Torah. (Can someone let me know if there is another?)

We split students into two groups for rehearsals (see accompanying photos), and when they returned to the classroom, we talked about the story.

Ever tussle with a sibling? I asked, pulling from Janet’s lesson plan. All but one said yes (I think he was hiding something!) Homefront fight scenarios were offered: disagreements over when a toy was purchased or who had charge of the television clicker. We talked about how these disagreements could be resolved. One student said that when one sibling wins an argument, he or she should at least say that the other that he or he was entitled to his or her opinion.

“What else could a brother and sister do if they were steaming mad at one another?” I asked, trying to steer them back to the Jacob and Esau story. “What did Jacob and Esau do?”

Another student said, “Jacob had that night in Haran before he saw Esau.”

“Good,” I said. “How did that help the brothers reconnect?”

“Jacob had time to think,” said yet another student.

Only a minute was left before the end-of-day bell.

That’s when another sharp Beth Emet kid said, “There’s a girl in my school who is always saying mean things to some of us. Then some of us say means things back. Next time we get into it, I’m going to suggest that take a break from the fight. Maybe that will help.”

Beth Emet kids are so smart.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Like a Good Neighbor...

Last Saturday at Beyond Om/Spiritual Practice, Rabbi London asked us to think about the meaning of this verse from Leviticus:

“You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 19:18)

According to Rabbi Akiba, this verse is the most important one in the entire Torah. Maimonides dubbed it the most important of the 613 mitzvot.

My study partner and I agreed that if our neighbor was a good person we could get behind the idea. But what if she was a bad egg? Harder, if not impossible. She recalled two characters from one of the “Goodbye Columbus,” stories by Philip Roth. A Jewish businessman buys all the merchandise of another businessman whose business is failing. Is he despicable for putting the limping business out of its misery? Or has he done what good businessmen do, which is make good business decisions even if it has a negative effect on someone else?

I’ve been thinking about this all week. It’s the measurement that trips me up. How much love is meant by “loving our neighbor?” We think of this “loving” as all encompassing, like the unconditional love we have for our children or (certain) family members. But the verse doesn’t say this exactly. We can always find something to love about a “neighbor,” can’t we? And something entirely different to love in another neighbor. Perhaps the idea here is that a little bit of love is enough.

I recently gave a client a break in the cost of my services because he asked for it. Because he could not afford to pay the full fee. Not long after this, someone from whom I sought services gave me a break (without my asking.)

Can two small acts of love satisfy the appeal to “love thy neighbor?” Perhaps it all doesn’t have to go to one place. Isn't love is meant to be spread around?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Walk Like an Egyptian

In Saturday’s parsha (Genesis 21), Sarah says to Abraham,

“Drive out this slave woman with her son for the son of that slave woman shall not inherit with my son, with Isaac!”

That slave woman is Hagar, Sarah’s handmaiden. You may remember that Hagar became pregnant with Abraham’s son, Ishmael, well before Sarah delivered Isaac after years (and years and years) of infertility.

Sarah insists that Abraham send Hagar and Ishmael away. The exact words, from my Stone Edition are that Sarah witnessed “the son of Hagar, the Egyptian, mocking.” But the text suggests that Sarah believes that Ishmael is corrupt and evil, a menace to the health and life of Isaac. Surely there are issues between the women – jealousy and resentment perhaps? But banishment? Of Abraham’s blood son?

Though the matter distresses Abraham, God assures him that a great nation will be made of Ishmael. And so Abraham abides.

Ultimately Ishmael is spared – because God hears Hagar’s cries (or is it Ishmael’s) and a water well appears, but the whole drama begins because Ishmael is an Egyptian and he mocked. Ishmael didn’t kill anyone. There was no blood. How different is “He’s an Egyptian” to “He’s an American” or “He’s an Israeli?” But exile? Deportation by demographics?

The Koran holds Ishmael in high regard because his descendants include Muhammad, the Patriarch of Islam. He is considered a prophet. We know he became an archer and married an Egyptian woman, but what do we (Jews) really know about the rest of his life? We understand Ishmael as menacing and then his storyline ends for us. I recently learned from a Muslim friend of mine that Hagar and Ishmael eventually settled in what we know of as Mecca. The seeds of Islam begin with the casting out of Hagar and Ishmael. God clearly had other plans for Ishmael. Muslims view the Abraham-Sarah-Hagar-Ishmael-Isaac story as full of blessings.

My sensitivity to certain sections of Torah is most likely the result of my interfaith activity over the past eight years. Among the many attractions for me at Beth Emet, has been our rabbis involvement Things Interfaith. It’s touchy, complicated stuff. But I like that all of them have given it a go. I’m proud that Beth Emet continues to be one of three host houses of worship for numerous interfaith events each year – one of which is taking place this Sunday, October 24th. At 2 pm in the Weiner Room, Muslim, Christian and Jewish women will reflect on the food of our faiths in an afternoon retreat titled, “Shared Food for the Faithful: Passover/Sukkot, Eucharist and Iftar.” (Sorry fellas, this is for women only.)

Last year we met at Beth Emet, a Morton Grove mosque and a Chicago church – to talk about women of courage, personal healing and the sacred arts. After Sunday’s event, during the next year we’ll look into how our faith impacts our work. and later, how our traditions view end-of-life passages.

In these gatherings, I hear what makes us similar and different. It may sound odd but I am pushed deeper into my Judaism, I think because these conversations ask me to articulate what I may have never put into words before.

And I’m clearly reading Torah differently, too.

I’d be curious to hear what this stirs in you.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Brothers and Others

A topical muse, Mr. Kaufman, as just last week in Rabbi London’s Friday morning Torah class there was much discussion about Potiphar’s role in Pharoah’s house (Genesis 39.) Was he a courtier, chief steward or chamberlain? And what did these mean? And did it make a difference?

In daily life, some of us are more sensitive to words than others. But Torah study seems to make us all word-sensitive, which, from where I sit, is never a bad thing.

On the other hand, it's easy to get bogged down in words. So, just for fun (and because this blog program makes it so easy) I underwent a short experiment. I found images of brothers, partners, comrades and a pair. I wondered what lining them up together would look like? Would the essence of the words filter through? What else would we see?

So with thanks to Google images and apologies for the

inartful layout, I offer them here. Can you match the photo with the words? What connects these images?




A Pair


Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Brothers, Lost in Translation

In the book of Genesis, which we are currently reading on Shabbat, we have stories about the brothers Cain and Abel, about Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, and of course about Joseph and his brothers. (In the rest of the Torah, the only brothers playing major roles will be Moses and Aaron.) Thus I was particularly sensitized to brothers a few months ago when our Torah study class read Jacob’s dying exhortation to his sons. I was particularly struck by the efforts of several Biblical translators to avoid translating achim as brothers.

Rabbi London, along with many in the class, was using the Women’s Torah Commentary, while others followed along in the revised Plaut Commentary, both of which present Chaim Stern’s translation of Genesis. Since I have a particular fascination with what the translator brings to, or lays on, the text, my book was the Orthodox Art Scroll Stone Chumash, rendered into English by Nosson Scherman.

The line we were talking about reads, in the Hebrew, Shimon v’Levi achim, klei chamass m’cheirotaichem. Left to my own devices, and aided by my own desk dictionary, I would render this Simeon and Levi are brothers; their weapons are instruments of violence. (My Ben-Yehuda-Weinstein Pocket Dictionary also offers kinsman or countryman as possible ach translations, but neither of these figure in the translations of Genesis I consulted.)

Seeing achim, I was startled to hear Rabbi London read Simeon and Levi are partners; instruments of violence are their plan. And my surprise was only enhanced when I looked at the translation I had in front of me: Simeon and Levi are comrades; their weaponry is a stolen craft.

Encountering these two different translations, or non-translations, of the same word, I did some further homework, and found that the 1995 Jewish Publication Society translation makes Simeon and Levi a pair. The 1917 JPS, following the King James, has brethren, which I see as old-fashioned but accurate. Robert Alter translates the phrase under scrutiny as Simeon and Levi, the brothers, although there is no the in the Hebrew. Everett Fox chooses Simeon and Levi – such brothers – no such in the Hebrew either. (There are also further variations in the translation of klei chamass m’cheirotaichem, but they’re not germane to the main thrust of this discussion.)

Now, in defense of the eccentric renderings, their contrivers were obviously trying to get into Jacob’s mind, and to convey what he was trying to convey. We know that Simeon and Levi are brothers, two among the twelve; and they are also brothers to Dinah, in whose defense they earned the scorn their father is expressing. But, if we know Hebrew, we also know that if Jacob had wanted to say Simeon and Levi were partners, he could have called them shutafim; if he had wanted to call them comrades, he could have said chaverim; if he had wanted to identify them as a pair, he could have used zug. But the text reads achim – brothers.

As I have recounted before, http://blogs.rj.org/reform/2008/09/quotations-translations-and-ob.html, I once overheard a business colleague scolding his secretary. “You shouldn’t have done what I said, you should have done what I meant.” From opposite ends of the religious spectrum, Rabbis Scherman (Orthodox), the comrades man, and Stern (Reform), the partners man, agree that brothers alone is not good enough for helping us understand what Jacob meant, it’s important to convey that they’re two of a kind.

This leads to the core question: what IS the job of the translator? Is it to tell us what the original language says, or what it means? Rabbi Amy Memis-Foler introduced me to the idea that any translation is a commentary; and in a different spin on the difficulty of going from one language to another, the Hebrew poet Chaim Nachman Bialik is credited with the simile that reading poetry in translation is like kissing the bride through her veil. Going even further into the perils of translation, an Italian proverb equates translation with treason. http://blogs.rj.org/reform/2008/05/linguistic-disconnects.html.

One indication of the importance of a text written in a language other than the reader’s own vernacular is the availability of multiple translations. Why do we need more than one? One reason is that, even though the source text is static, language in general is dynamic, so while one generation’s translation may combine fidelity and fluency, a few generations later, the fluency may have disappeared. A concept like the familiar form in the second person singular (thy and thine) doesn’t exist in Hebrew nor in contemporary English – so a locution that combined fidelity and fluency in the era of King James would provide neither today. But we leave it alone in Shakespeare (this above all, to thine own self be true) while we change it in liturgy (All the world shall come to serve Thee/You). http://blogs.rj.org/reform/2010/01/all-the-world.html

Since my obsession with translation surfaces especially in the context of Torah study (and to a lesser extent, in the context of liturgy), my first impulse is to want the translator(s) to be as faithful as possible to the inherent meaning of the words. The commentary can then suggest how those words might be understood. Even in a Bible edition without commentary, the explanation can be handled in a footnote.

If I owned the printing presses, I would follow the rabbinic PaRDeS tradition. Pardes, as a word, is translated orchard, but as an acronym it encapsulates p’shat, remez, drash, and sod. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pardes_(Jewish_exegesis). In this updated PaRDeS approach, the p‘shat is the simple translation, remez is the context, drash is the interpretive explanation, and sod (for which the p’shat is secret) is the lesson to be derived. http://blogs.rj.org/reform/2009/08/sonnet-torah-study-the-pardes.html, In such a case, the p’shat would be achim. The translator’s “reading,” like partners or comrades, would be the remez. The back story – Simeon and Levi’s actions in defense of their sister – would be the drash, interpreting why Jacob has paired these two sons in this way. The sod here would be contained not in the word achim itself, but in its amplification as their mutual commitment to violence.

But I don’t own the printing presses, and I continue to brood about the variations on the achim theme: partners, comrades, a pair. They all seem to suggest that brothers (at least these brothers) have a bond beyond common parentage. As a corollary, we find words like brotherhood and fraternity (from the Latin frater, brother) that extend a brotherly bond to closely linked men without common parentage. It’s interesting that when the National Federation of Temple Brotherhoods changed its name to Men of Reform Judaism, it left the name of its magazine unchanged: Achim. Brothers. When we sing Hinei ma tov u ma na’im shevet achim gam yachad, we think, or at least I think, how good and how pleasant it is when brothers dwell together in unity. Think, too, about Schiller’s Ode to Joy, typically sung to Beethoven’s music. Wouldn’t you translate Alle Menschen werden BrĂ¼der as All men become brothers?

No, if you’re part of the gender-sensitive Reform movement, or the politically- correct Beth Emet community, you’d probably translate it as All people become siblings. Sometimes it’s the meaning, and sometimes it’s the poetry, that gets lost in translation.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Talkin' 'bout my Generation

My friend is in the midst of returning a 1920s German family scrapbook, discovered in her mother’s belongings after her death, to the descendants.

Before she packed and sent the album, we paged through the vacation photographs captioned with pen and ink remarks, hand-drawn sketches of nature scenes, ticket stubs from concerts and notes from visiting friends. We talked about how so few people hang on to anything in paper anymore. How rare it will be for future generations to get this close to handwritten thank-you notes and black and white vacation photographs. Here was evidence of fully lived lives, a few generations back.

I had this in mind as I read the Torah portions for last week and the one to come. How easy it is to stay unconscious about our descendants unless we have evidence - or as we see in the parashas - a list.

If my reading of the Beth Emet Torah Portion chart is correct (and please, someone, let me know if I am not!), last week’s parasha, (Genesis 5:1-24) includes the naming of the every male descendant connecting Adam to Noah. We aren’t given any more than that they lived and how long. But that they lived is important enough to be included in our Torah.

…when Adam lived one hundred and thirty years, he begot in his likeness and his image and he named him Seth…. Seth lived one hundred and five years and begot Enosh …Enosh lived ninety years and begot Kenan.

The generations between Noah and Abraham are also laid out in this week’s (October 9) portion (Genesis 11:1- 32).

Shem was one hundred years old when he begot Arpachshad, two years after the Flood. And Shem lived five hundred years after begetting Arphachshad and he begot sons and daughters. Arpachshad had lived thirty-five years when he got Shelah…

A confession: These are parts of Torah that I usually skip. Who cares about who begets whom?

But I noticed that in both of these portions, the distance between generation is ten. Ten generations of fully, very fully, lived lives. Can you imagine combing through artifacts of blood relatives going back that far?

Our children’s children and those beyond may not get that chance. Hence the value of The List.

Could there be other reasons that ten generations are listed, name by name?

How far back can you go in naming your descendants?

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Before You Begin Again: Thoughts on Simchat Torah

Many years ago, after finishing the Book of Genesis over a three-year period, I ceremonialized this feat with several women in a siyum. The word, meaning end in Hebrew, marks the completion of a reading of a book of Torah.

We gathered in the sanctuary where we read and chanted Hebrew prayers.

After the service, we met in the library for tuna fish salad and bagels and lively conversation. It had taken us three years to read Genesis and you betcha, it was a celebration!

But the service and luncheon weren’t the only pieces that satisfied. It wasn’t the act of reading that we were acknowledging. Heck, we were grownups and had been reading most of our lives. It was certainly about having read and studied Genesis, but it was less about the reading and more about having finished. It was about completion.

The siyum inspired me to start my own at-home ritual as it related to personal reading: I began a practice of handwriting the title and author of each book that I read into a hard bound notebook that I kept on my bedside table. To stop and savor the finishing for a moment. (I’ve often considered building on this ritual, perhaps entering the titles with an ink pen in calligraphy. Or sit down with the book at my side, with a cup of tea. Someday perhaps…)

Today is Simchat Torah, signifying the end of our readings of the Torah readings for the year. Certainly something for us to celebrate! Sure, we complete innumerable tasks during the course of a year. Think what we do in just one day: a signature on a contract, the final stitch of surgery to wiping down our kitchen counters. We complete it and then we do it again. Almost immediately.

But what if we stopped for just a moment just to acknowledge that the job was done? And that it was good?

Prompt: Describe what you are likely to do after finishing a long project. Next, allow yourself to imagine what you would LIKE to do. How different are these?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Thoughts on Temporary Shelter/Sukkot 2010

A friend of mine recently sold her childhood home, the one her father, an architect, built with his own hands. It’s a spectacular one-story house positioned to catch the morning and setting suns through tall pines, a trickling stream and frequent visits by graceful deer.

She and her husband lived and raised their daughter there until last spring, when the combination of her parents’ deaths, her husband’s job loss and rising maintenance costs forced them to put it up for sale.

It was an excruciating experience for her, like letting go of a piece of her heart.

But an extraordinary thing happened to my friend and her husband, also an architect, since the sale of the house -- these friends for whom houses mean more than just a roof over one’s head.

A housesitting arrangement materialized for the summer, providing a short term living arrangement for them until the cottage they would rent in the fall would become available.

With each passing week after the sale, with this new homelessness, untetheredness – this wandering - mysteriously brought a lightness to her step and melody in her voice.

Last week, she and her family moved into the tiny rental cottage they will live in for the next year, about 20 minutes from their former neighborhood.

Though she may need to move once again next year around this time, my dear friend could not be happier. This temporary shelter -- like the sukkahs that many of us will eat, drink, study and possibly sleep in for the next week – offers safety and space without asking for very much in return. Unlike her childhood home, with its vibrant memories clinging to walls and floorboards, this impermanent home where she will eat and sleep and read gives her a chance to leave some parts of herself behind and discover new ones, providing her with a place just to be.

Prompt #1: Describe a place, be it indoors or out, with people or without, that altered your perspective, even if in just the tiniest way.

Prompt #2: Why do you think it was so important that Jews wanted to be reminded of ancestral wandering, back when they lived in temporary dwellings? What it is about traveling to another place, pilgrimmaging, that merits remembering?

Monday, September 13, 2010

And what did you do on the second day of Rosh Hashanah?

A recent JTA article http://www.jta.org/news/article/2010/08/31/2740437/the-second-day-of-rosh-hashanah-to-be-in-shul-or-not-to-be raised the question, and responded with anecdotal information about people who do and people who don’t observe two days, regardless of the position of the stream with which they identify. The article discusses why the second day was added, how it has been justified, and how the second day of Rosh Hashanah is different from the Yom Tov Sheni, second holy day, of the three festivals. (For a more sophisticated discussion, see Mah Rabu http://mahrabu.blogspot.com/2008/09/one-day-only-part-1a-reform.html)

I have always observed both days of Rosh Hashanah, largely because I have always observed both days of Rosh Hashanah. During one phase of my early adult life, my “observance” was pretty much limited to not going to work (either day), and then, when I finally joined a congregation, it was a Reform temple, with a one-day observance. The second day felt empty to me, though, and I was able to cadge a ticket to attend the second day at the Conservative synagogue up the street.

When Gates of Repentance was published, it contained two different Rosh Hashanah services, with the suggestion that the second one could be used for variety, or for a shorter service, or for congregations that observed two days – a new idea to me as a Reform concept, but one that alerted me to a trend in some sectors of the movement, to observe the second day. My suggestion that we introduce second day services at my congregation was heard with interest by the associate rabbi, but was set aside after the idea was broached to the senior rabbi. So I continued to go to the Conservative synagogue, and then after a few years, to Beth Emet’s second-day observance.

Flash forward a number of years. At the temple board meeting of my previous congregation immediately after the High Holy Days, the president of the congregation began the proceedings by asking the board for guidance on an issue, after the fact, but as a determinant for next year. The executive director had suggested closing the temple office on the second day, because so many members of the office staff observed both days. The president had agreed, stipulating that this was not to be taken as a precedent for the future.

In the board’s discussion, I commented that the temple served me well 364 days a year, and that I had made arrangements to fill my needs on the 365th, so it was immaterial to me personally whether or not we held second day services. If we do, I said, then it’s a holy day, and obviously the temple office should be closed. If we don’t, though, we’re saying it’s not a holy day, and therefore the office should be open, while allowing those who observe two days to take a personal day. The board agreed with the principle I had articulated, and voted to keep the office open in the future, although eventually, with new clergy, the congregation adopted the second day.

A quickie survey of the second-day scene among Reform congregations in the Chicago area indicates that this year about half the Reform congregations are observing two days. I just heard about one Conservative congregation that rents a high school auditorium to accommodate its first day crowd, while on the second day, it uses the sanctuary, larger than its own, of a hospitable one-day Reform synagogue. (That’s the paradox facing Conservative synagogues, whose members don’t practice what they expect their rabbis to preach. But that’s a subject for another day.)

Here at Beth Emet, the second day services are very different in look and feel from first day – smaller, no choir, a highly participatory Torah discussion instead of a sermon. I enjoy the intimacy, even as I miss the majesty that accrues when a thousand people pray together.

The JTA article I referenced at the outset said that, among congregations of all streams that observe a two-day Rosh Hashanah, the attendance fall-off the second day is 75%. And this year, with the holiday on Thursday and Friday, we went directly into Shabbat Shuvah. Somewhat to my surprise, attendance at both Kabbalat Shabbat and Shabbat morning services was pretty close to normal Shabbat attendance. Apparently we have a cadre of daveners who don’t “burn out.”

I write this with Yom Kippur looming, and we will again have a crowded expanded sanctuary. The more people, the harder it is to see anybody, much less everybody. So if I didn’t get a chance to extend wishes for a good and sweet year at last weekend’s four day marathon, let me do so now. Gmar chatimah tovah.

Here's to You, Mrs. Rosensweig

In the spirit of telling stories that help us understand our own Jewish journeys, I’d like to share one of mine:

It was 1965 and I was in Mrs. Rosensweig’s first grade class at Charles W. Henry School in Philadelphia. I was six and a half.

Mrs. Rosensweig was standing at the blackboard with her pointer when out of the blue, the classmate seated next to me whispered in my ear, "Ellen, do you believe in God?"

It was a question that could throw you – especially at six - but around that time I had been asking my parents about God. We were not a religious family, nor did we hang out in organized religious circles. Ours was a mostly secular life punctuated with some Jewish holiday observances (Passover) and some non-Jewish ones (we had a Christmas tree each year as well as Easter egg hunts.) Ideas about God were most likely to come from my parents. But when it didn’t, I was moved to ask them, "Do we believe in God?”

My dad told me to ask my mom. My mom said that she just wasn’t sure.

And so, having done the research, I felt justified in responding to this classmate by answering truthfully, "I’m not sure, but I don’t think so." She took my answer and turned it into a game of Telephone, whispering to the girl next to her, "Ellen doesn’t believe in God, pass it on."

All the excitement brought Mrs. Rosensweig to my desk. She demanded to know what was being said and would I share it with the rest of the class. And that’s when the little interviewer beside me blurted out, "It’s Ellen, Mrs. Rosensweig. She says she doesn’t believe in God."

Remember, this was the early 1960s. Mrs. Rosensweig had a number of choices that day and unfortunately for me, she leaned in closer, and using her pointer for emphasis, said in front of the entire first grade class, "Ellen, if you don’t believe in God, how then do you explain how you got here this morning? How do you explain how the trains and cars go? How do you explain how the universe was created?"

I’ll never forget the sensation of every first graders’ eyes boring through me as Mrs. Rosensweig made an example of me that day, railing on and on, making my confusion about God only more so and not allowing me the chance to speak or have my questions answered. She gave me the impression, at a very impressionable age, that if you were honest about how you felt about God, or questioned God’s existence at all, you would probably get a public tongue lashing.

I believe that that very day, I laid my muddled feelings about God to rest. It wasn’t worth it, I thought.

Twenty-five years later, it was my daughters’ questions about God, the afterlife and the soul that rustled up those deeply buried memories of a young girl who never got her questions answered. I knew one thing - my children were going to have their questions explored.

And explore we did. When my daughters were the age to begin religious school, we joined Beth Emet. After a few months and too many questions from the girls that I simply couldn’t answer, I felt a tug to venture into the building and take some adult education classes for myself.

Back then, in the mid 1990s, Rabbi Eleanor Smith was teaching a workshop on God. There in the Weiner Room, I discovered that I was not the only one who had ever questioned God’s existence. Moses had too. As had others in the room. I was reminded that history is full of people who argued with God and no one was ever struck down dead from their questions. The questioning and disagreement often led to enrichment.

The gate to the subject of God finally opened, now longer guarded by well-meaning, but misguided teacher with a pointer.

I was a woman on fire, burning through books and study, hungry for more. And so began a rich spiritual journey, among which led to an adult bat mitzvah and teaching religious school, that I like to think motherhood set me on.

Or was it Mrs. Rosensweig?

Prompt #1: What turned you to or away from God or Judaism?

Prompt #2: What brought you to the doors of Beth Emet?

A version of this piece was originally published in “Views from the Home Office Window,” by Ellen Blum Barish (Adams Street Publishing, 2007).

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

In God's Name

In her wonderful children’s book, “In God’s Name,” Sandy Eisenberg Sasso writes that after every living thing was named by God, all of the people said, “God must have a single name that is greater and more wonderful than all other names.” The farmer called God Source of Life. The man who tended sheep called God, Shepherd. The soldier, Maker of Peace. The caregiver, Healer. The slave, Redeemer. And on it goes. (There were 10 names, all together.)

When they all called out their own name for God at the same time, Sasso writes, “The people knew that all the names for God were good, and no name was better than another.” Then they came together and called God, One.

It’s a beautiful book, illustrated by Phoebe Stone (see book cover image at the left), that prompts one to ask “What are the qualities of God that resonate most for me?”

An essential part of the Selichot service is the repeated recitation of the "Thirteen Attributes of God," a list of God’s characteristics revealed to Moses after the Golden Calf Incident.

It reads:

Adonai, Adonai (1,2), God (3), merciful (4) and gracious (5), long-suffering (6), and abundant in goodness (7) and truth (8); keeping mercy unto the thousandth generation (9), forgiving iniquity (10) and transgression (11) and sin (12); and that will by no means clear (cleanse, 13) the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children, and upon the children's children, unto the third and unto the fourth generation.

(Exodus 34:6-7)

Prompt #1: Some of the words in the Exodus passage will move you more than others. Which ones do? Which ones don’t and why?

Prompt #2: Is there a logical sequence to these words? Why is Adonai repeated? And why are ten of these words qualities?

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Movement into Resolution

In the language of music, resolution is defined as the sound passing from a dissonant to a consonant tone or the progression of a chord from dissonance to consonance. The idea is there is movement from dissonant (inharmonious, jarring, harsh) to consonant (harmonious, pleasing, stable).

Movement isn’t possible without resolution, without a back and forth between the cacophonous to the melodious. And resolution is necessary to finalize the four steps of teshuvah, before we reach the Holy Days.

The moon has just passed its fullness, reminding us that the month of Elul is drawing to a close. Will you have come to some resolution in this final week of Elul?

Maimonides asks, “Who achieves a “complete teshuvah”? His answer, “The one who confronts the same situation in which one sinned and instead, abstains.” We resolve not to repeat our behavior even though we are fully aware that it is possible to do so.

Turning a new leaf when the leaves are beginning to fall and pile up around us isn’t easy. It takes an act of will. A break with old habits. Admitting we’ve done wrong. Starting over again.

Teshuvah means saying we are sorry and recognizing we have the ability to change. And in the process, we are blessed with a great gift – healing.

Thank you, Alden Solovy, for sending along the link to your exquisite prayer on the season we are about to enter. Your words so beautifully capture the possibility of the season. I am taking the liberty of sharing it here because it is so very on point. If you would like to read more of Alden's prayers - and hear him reading as well - go to http://tobendlight.com/about-the-author/.

The Season of Healing

by Alden Solovy

This is the season of healing:

Of healing our hearts and minds,

Of healing the moments we share with each other

And the moments we share with ourselves.

This is the season of memory:

Of remembering our parents and grandparents,

The love of generations,

The holiness of our ancestors.

This is the season of stillness,

The season of silence and quiet:

Of deep breaths,

Of open eyes,

Of compassion and consolation.

This is the season of healing:

The season of grief turning to wonder,

Of loss turning toward hope,

The season that binds this year to the next,

The season that frees this year from the next,

The season that heralds the redemption of spirit

And our return to G-d’s Holy Word.

© 2010 Alden Solovy and www.tobendlight.com. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Reject the Old Before Bringing in the New

So we’ve determined that it’s our responsibility during Elul to identify the pieces of our lives that aren’t working so well and that once we’ve identified it, regret is likely to surface. Articulating that regret allows us to reject the behavior for the coming year and make room for new, improved ones. In this third week of Elul, we look at rejecting.

“Make the following declaration before God,” the Torah tell us (Deuteronomy 26:12-13). This suggests that we say it aloud before God - or publicly - so that you can hear your regrets and then reject them for the coming year. If we can’t articulate our sins, then how likely are we to be clear about what we are rejecting?

A good reason to pay attention and join in with the congregation when we recite the 44 statements of the Al Chyet prayers during Yom Kippur services..

“For the mistakes we have committed before You under duress or willingly…”

“For the mistakes we have committed before You through having a hard heart…”

“For the mistakes we have committed before You without thinking (or knowledge)…”

This year, I’m thinking about the third statement, with a focus on the “without thinking” part.

I regularly donate to a number of health-related charities; public radio, environmental groups, the local high school and for natural disasters, by check or credit card. Lately these have come to feel more like paying bills than making donations. I’m removed from the people who will benefit from my contribution. And this is beginning to undo the good feeling of having given.

So I was very interested in a newspaper story that a friend sent me several months ago about a 63-year-old unemployed man who was giving away $10 a day for one year. Even toward the end of the year, when he still didn’t have a job, getting out there kept this man grounded. But more importantly, he felt really good about the giving part.

I was mostly struck by the face-to-face nature of his giving: He could have surely written a check for $3650 to one charity– but, he wouldn’t have seen the faces of the folks on whom he made this small, but oh so impactful, impression.

Years ago, when I taught religious school to our fifth graders at Beth Emet, tzedakah was one of the three primary curriculum subjects for the each year. We learned from Maimonides that there are eight levels of giving. The lowest of these is when someone gives after being asked or solicited, especially if the person does so unwillingly or begrudgingly. Of highest merit, is giving an interest-free gift or loan, finding someone a job or entering into a partnership.

From least merit to best, the ladder of giving looks something like this:

8. Giving begrudgingly and inadequately. LEAST BEST

7. Giving adequately after being asked.

6. Giving before being asked.

5. Giving publicly to someone you don’t know.

4. Giving anonymously to someone you do know.

3. Giving anonymously to someone you don’t know by way of a trustworthy person or public fund.

2. Giving a grant to a person in need.

1. Giving an interest-free loan to a person in need. BEST

Maimonides believed that any kind of giving is good. But there’s giving and there’s Giving. This year, I will be rejecting some of the previous ways that I’ve been giving and brainstorming new ways to bring me closer to those I hope to benefit.

What would you consider rejecting? And how will you articulate it?