Saturday, August 27, 2011

Re’eh, Mitzvot, the Coming of Elul and You

This weeks parashah, Reeh, (translated as see) concludes (14:1-16:17) with a detailing of the mitzvot that set the Israelites apart from other nations. They include but are not limited to: kashrut, tithing, observing the sabbatical year, the particulates of lending money, the treatment of slaves, consecrating the first born animal and then there is a review of the observances of the Yomim Tovim (Pesach, Shavout and Succot).

But wait theres more. In a few days (the evening of August 31, 2011) we begin the month of Elul. This is a time that we have an opportunity to reflect on the past year and bring ourselves to a strong mental place for a good cleansing at Yom Kippur. It has been my custom to write an Elul message for the past few years on some theme. The themes come from nowhere in particular – some germ floating in the air that landed in my brain. Prior years have brought my readers (blessed be their eyes and hearts) such things as: texting - the text giving new meaning to the magic of cyber shortcuts, writing our own story, everyday spirituality and the like.

I mention this to you because my subject matter this year is mitzvot in the form of our personal stories. The mitzvot that we are not only commanded to do, but that which draw us into the prospect of a good healthy place to begin our New Year some 29 days after the start of Elul. This parashah, Reeh, is a great way to begin the Elul journey.

Look at the mitzvot that Torah says set us apart from the other nations. Time has past since our desert tour and they are still usable, if not to the letter, but in some form. Some manipulation needs to be done with consecrating the first born animal but in issues of the treatment of slaves we need only substitute our treatment of people (piercing of ears aside) and the rules are pertinent.

Among the many listings of mitzvot that one can find is a long list, (there are 613 – 248 positive and 365 negative) there are many that we are no longer responsible to do since the destruction of the Temple. Our days could be busy keeping the 77 positive ones that remain in our to do list and the 194 negatives. Of those 26 can only be done in Israel and then there are some that women are exempt from doing. Some of them are natural to most of us. It would be a blessing to know that you are already mitzvah-ready and working. Some are harder and require concentration and some are obscure. I would like to recommend that knowing what is commanded of us and then following through leads us back to the opening lines of this parashah:

Behold, I set before you today a blessing and a curse. The blessing, that you will heed the commandments of Adonai your God, which I command you today; and the curse if you will not heed the commandments of Adonai your God, but turn away from the way I command you this day, to follow other gods, which you did not know

No coincidence that this particular commandment is woven through the listing of the first seven mitzvot.

Next week I start the Elul writings and am delighted to send them unblogged to anyone interested. Email me at and poof they will be there. You are not commanded to read them – you may delete them – send them on – chant them to some familiar tune. They are tidbits of stories and will be entitled My Grandma has a Tale and will focus on ways our mitzvot are prevalent in our daily stories as I trek through my mitzvah memories and make way towards the year 5772. Reeh helps us get to where we need to go with reminders of that which makes people special - but only if they work at it.

Shabbat Shalom

Marilyn Price

Friday, August 12, 2011

Tu b’Av – A Jewish Holiday of Love

Most of us know about, but do not rigorously observe, Tisha b’Av, the recently passed day for the sorrowful commemoration of the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem. Most of us do not know about, and so do not observe, the joyous holiday of Tu b’Av, the holiday that commences this Sunday night (August 14).

Tu b’Av is a holiday of about love and romance, graced appropriately enough with a full moon. One sage in the Talmud, intending a compliment, even placed Tu B’Av on the same level of joyousness as Yom Kippur. I have never viewed Yom Kippur as a joyous holiday, but I understand Shimon ben Gamliel to mean that this holiday is, or ought to be, a time of great importance.

I also know, as the contemporary sage Hal David has taught, “What the world needs now is love sweet love. No, not for some but for everyone.”

So, in a few days, let’s celebrate the last holiday of the year. Maybe we all won’t go dancing in the vineyards, but let’s at least renew our acquaintance with Tu B’Av. You never know what will happen when the moon is full.

Roger Price

Friday, August 5, 2011

Wisdom from Jacob and the Dark Spaces

Late last spring when we came to the end of Genesis in Friday's Torah class, Rabbi London asked us to select a part that moved us and reflect on it in some way.

Suzanne Coffey chose Tol’dot, Genesis 25: 19-28: Jacob and Esau in Rebekah’s uterus. Suzanne is the mother of four premature quadruplets who were born after her own struggle with infertility.

The way she connected Jacob’s story to her own was so moving that I asked Suzanne if she’d be willing to tell it again so that it could be shared with you here in this blog space.

Thank you, Suzanne, for saying yes.

She was drawn to the story of Jacob’s struggle in Rebekah’s womb because her firstborn, Noah Jacob, struggled in his own way.

“Torah’s Jacob has his most powerful moments in the dark,” she says. “And this is where he interfaces with the Divine and his destiny.”

“Jacob fights for primacy in Rebekah’s womb, and grabs his twin brother Esau’s heel in utero,” Jacob’s name means heel in Hebrew.

We all know about Jacob’s other struggles in the dark:

Jacob dreams about the ladder to heaven and wakes up knowing God.

Jacob wrestles with the angel in the night.

Jacob is grabbed by the thigh during the wrestling and then walks with a limp but earns praise and compassion from the angel and God as a result of the fight.

Like the Jacob in Torah, Suzanne’s firstborn, Noah Jacob, struggled to leave the womb first. He succeeded, but not without incredible challenges. He suffered two severe cerebral hemorrhages, a case of pneumonia and sepsis. The infection attacked his blood, the femur bone near his hip and then traveled to his heart.

“Noah was battling to stay alive,” Suzanne says, “and the doctor told us to make preparations.”

This all happened in 1999. Rabbi Eleanor Smith came to the hospital to rename Noah. She had been there earlier to give Noah and his sisters, Rachel, Alyssa and Hannah, their Hebrew names. But because Noah was struggling, Rabbi Smith returned to rename him Noah Jacob Yerachmiel, meaning “God Have Mercy and Compassion.” A prayer for his life.

Hours after the renaming, Suzanne says that Noah started to show signs of pep. “His face went from looking like an old man to just relaxed.”

Noah has cerebral palsy as a result of the brain bleeds and he has a hemiparesis which affects the right side of his body. As a result, he walks with a limp and has difficulty with fine motor skills. He is, however, in a regular classroom at school and during our conversation, he was away visiting his grandparents. But he is, in the words of his mother, “mercifully well off.”

Suzanne says that she experienced “an interface with the Divine through Noah’s struggle.“ She says “A combination of good medical care, medicine and God turned it all around for him. God answered my prayers. God intervened on Noah’s behalf. Life could have turned out very different for us, but God showed mercy and compassion.”

Though she had noted some of the parallels between the Jacob story and her own Noah Jacob, more of the pieces came together as she prepared for her d’var in Torah class.

This Sunday (August 7) is Noah, Rachel, Alyssa and Hannah’s half birthday. In February 2012, they will celebrate their b’nai mitzvahs.

There is so much to celebrate.

Not only the covenant that Noah, Rachel, Alyssa and Hannah will be making with the Jewish people. And the one they will have with the Beth Emet community. And the party afterwards!

But Suzanne will have the chance to celebrate that through motherhood, she not only brought four new lives into the world, she found her own personal portal for interfacing with the Divine.

Interview and photographs by Ellen Blum Barish