Rosh Hashanah Day Two, 5775/2014

Rosh Hashanah Day Two 5775

JCA

Rabbi Benjamin Weiner

This story is based on Genesis Chapter 22:

http://www.mechon-mamre.org/e/et/et0122.htm

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Vayehi ahar had’varim ha’eleh…

(Genesis 22:1)

And it was after these things that Efraim woke up from his nap one Sunday afternoon.  I heard his voice through the monitor on the table, by the stove, where I was eating a late lunch, having just come in from the field.  And I thought: here I am, with two cherry trees still to plant this afternoon.  Elise is working in Springfield, and the voice of my son, my only son, whom I love, is calling to me.  I’ll have to go up and get him, and take him with me out into the field.

As I climbed the stairs, nearing the door of his room, I could hear him chattering to himself, without making out any particular words, but only the light singsong of his voice.  He was waking up sweetly.  When I poked my head through the doorway, hesitantly, so as not to startle him, he said, “Abba,” and greeted me with a coy smile.

With the shades drawn, his room was dark.  The north side of the house can be cool and night-like even when the sun is up in the sky.  Our second floor is cosmetically unfinished, but this one little room was redone—new sheetrock walls and ceiling, new paint and a large area rug—in the summer we were expecting him.  We salvaged most of the furniture—a crib and changing table, shelves now holding a growing library of board and picture books, a rocking chair in the corner where Elise nurses him in the morning and at night.  I sometimes sit there and rock him to sleep myself, singing Hank Williams ballads, finding the melancholy wail of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” to be a good lullaby.

A couple of small, framed photographs hang on the wall, of Elise as a little girl with her father.  They’re laughing in one, his arm around here as they lie back against a pillow.  In the other, he fixes her with a stern look of concentration as she practices the violin.  Above the rocking chair is a strange drawing my grandmother gave us, a page from an old-fashioned fairy tale about a woman who takes refuge in a secluded village from the giant who slew her family, where she lives off the produce of a small vegetable garden, which the picture shows her cultivating.  On either side of the room are images of Noah’s Ark, the one a painting behind glass in a green, wooden frame, and the other a cloth wall-hanging with many pockets, each holding a pair of little stuffed animals.  The room itself is a kind of ark, or refuge, a-hundred-and-fifty square feet set apart from the rest of the world, where a one-year-old child sleeps, and, on waking alone, is sheltered through his first moments of unguarded consciousness.

As I bent over the rail of the crib to lift him up, he pulled away from me, with a look of concern, and nestled back among his stuffed animals.

“What’s wrong, buddy?” I said.  “You wanna stay in the crib?”

“Imma coming?” he asked.

“Sorry, bud,” I said.  “Imma’s at work.  Abba’s here.”

He started to cry, sad shock puckering his face as the tears began to flow.

“It’s okay, bubby.  Abba’s here.  We’re gonna have fun.  We’re gonna go outside and plant a tree.  Two trees.”

“Imma coming,” he sobbed.

At these moments, in particular, he seems to shy away from me, as if the transition from crib to father is too abrupt, and he needs first the redolence of the body he knew from the inside, that knew him from the moment of conception, that has always fed him from itself; the warmth of the womb and the breast.  Abba is a world beyond, and that isn’t as safe.

I reached over the rail and lifted him up, a stuffed sheep still clenched in his right fist.  His onesy was damp on the left side of his body, from the hip up past his belly.

“Pup, we have to change your diaper,” I said, and laid him down on the changing table.  It didn’t take much to make him smile—a few silly faces, a nibble on the nose, puffing up my cheeks and letting him push the air out as I made a raspberry.  Laughter overtaking tears like the sun shining through a light shower, as immediate and genuine as his crying–animating the delicate bones of his naked little body like the breathing of a bird.  When he was changed, I put another onesy on him, and then dressed him in a pair of jeans and a warm long-sleeve shirt.

“Let’s get you some milk, bud,” I said, “and then we’re gonna go outside, while the sun’s still shining.”

“Outside,” he echoed.

***

 

It was mid-afternoon of an early spring day, the sky a chalky blue and the land still bearing an impression of the snowpack of winter, tamped down and drained of color.  Winter had been cold, a compelling portrayal of an old New England winter if you didn’t know the backstory—high pressure from the warming arctic shearing off a vortex of polar air and sending it south to freeze eastern North America, while temperatures in the rest of the hemisphere remained unusually high.  Still, I cherished the sights and the sensations, a lover of cold, of coming in with wind-reddened face to sit by the fire with some whiskey in my tea; of watching the snow fall steadily through the window, in the glare of the streetlight, and the hush and muffle it imposed on the state highway that runs past our front door.  But the adult mind, if it pays any attention, is always doing its dance between what is, was, and will be, between here and elsewhere.

Efraim stood still, where I had set him down on the front walkway.  Since he was a little baby, and I would carry him out to the porch in my arms, it has been possible to discern in him a different kind of attentiveness when he is outside, his ears perking to the rush of wind or the sound of a car whipping by on the road, his eyes widening.  He is a device for registering sensations that has not yet calibrated to a steady pattern, and so remains on alert, soft and curious, pliable.  He took a few steps, and stopped again.

“Moon?” he asked.  “Moon?”

I showed him the moon, hanging over the spindly white birch tree in the late day sky, on the wan from Passover, getting ready to preside over the evening.

“Moon,” he said, and stood looking at it while I walked toward the barn, and the tub of water where I was soaking the root balls of the trees.  Lowering his eyes, a moment later, he noticed I was no longer beside him, though only a few feet away, and he called out, “Abba.”

“Here I am, buddy,” I said, “Just over here.  Getting the trees ready.  You wanna come help abba plant the cherry trees?”

He hesitated, and I felt a slight twinge of impatience.

“Come on, buddy.  We’ve got to get this done before dark.  Can you walk over to, abba?”

He took a few steps and stopped again.

“Should I come get you?” I asked.

“Come get you,” he repeated.  I walked over and hoisted him up into my arms.

“Let’s go get the wagon,” I said.  “You wanna ride in the wagon?”

He brightened.  “Ride in the wagon.”

Leaving the trees soaking beside the barn, I carried him past the coop, where the chickens were scratching in the yard at the bare earth, and the kitchen garden still covered in its winter mulch of straw and leaves, toward the dilapidated greenhouse that I use as a storage shed for planks and fencing, and other useful things.  The wagon has two large rubber-tired wheels and a wide and deep carriage made of particleboard, with a sturdy aluminum pull-bar that sticks out a few feet from its body.  It was an investment I made after a couple of seasons taught me a simple plastic wheelbarrow would not suffice for carting out the mucky straw from stalls, or ferrying the implements and materials of planting back and forth from the deep reaches of the field.

Efraim was eager to ride in it.  I could feel the enthusiastic contraction of his body as we drew near, almost leaping out of my arms as I placed him down on the platform of the cart.

“Ride it,” he said.

“Okay, bud, sit down and we’ll go for a ride,” I told him.

He sat.  I grasped the pull bar and angled the cart upwards.  But I hadn’t counted on the reaction of his body to the angle of the cart.  He couldn’t balance against the steepness.  He was sitting in the middle of the cart, a considerable gap between his body and the backend, and when I tilted it up, he fell backwards, knocking his head against the platform.  He started to cry.

“Oh, sweetie,” I said, “I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean it.”  I lifted him up.  He put his arms around my neck, and cried against my collarbone.  I could feel no anger in him, only startled confusion, and maybe a little pain.

“Kiss it,” he cried out, through his tears.  I kissed the back of his head, and he settled down.

“You wanna try again?” I asked him.

“Again,” he said.

“You’re my brave little boy,” I told him, and placed him back in the wagon, with his shoulders flush against the backend.

“Here we go,” I said.  There was a flicker of fear in his eyes as the wagon jolted upwards, but his body braced, and rested securely as I pulled him across the yard to the barn.  There, I took him out for a few minutes, as I loaded in the saplings, along with a plastic bucket of composted manure and another, covered tightly, full of water from the rain barrel.  Then I snugged Efraim back into the wagon, between the buckets, laid the shovel across his lap, and pulled him out to the field.

***

It’s been my experience that as soon as you become a landowner, you want more land. On the first day I walked this property, I was elated by how long it took me to stroll from the side door of the house, through the field, and out to the narrow creek just past the edge of the wood line.  It was such a large and varied space, and it was all at my disposal.  Every time I’ve walked it since, I’ve been surprised by how quickly I got where I was going.

But pulling a loaded cart made the journey seem longer.  As the wheels jiggled over the stubble and the uneven ground, the buckets shifted, and the slender trunks of the saplings, dangling over the edge of the wagon, rattled their few leaves.  I stopped every few paces, to turn and see how Efraim was doing.  There was no particular expression on his face, but neither was it vacant.  He seemed to be absorbed in the sensation of riding on the wagon, the noise and the strange rhythm of its movement.

“You okay, buddy?” I called back.  He didn’t answer.

The pasture fence was to our left.  Since the snow had melted, we’d been letting the goats back out.  There was nothing green for them to eat yet, but they had been stuck in the barn for months, and it had taken a toll.  My white Nigerian Dwarf, Buttercup, the first goat I ever bought, had miscarried in early February, probably because the larger does were bullying her.  She took to crawling under the feeder for safety, and I didn’t notice how thin she had become till it was too late.  I bundled her up, and carried her through the snow to the comfort of my workroom, pushed a warm concoction of honey-barley water down her parched throat, even set up a saline drip the vet had suggested as a last ditch remedy.  But she moaned once, and died before my eyes.

The other goats, attracted by our passage, came running over, thinking we had something to feed them.  Efraim couldn’t see over the edge of the wagon, so I stopped it again, careful to angle the trees so the goats couldn’t nibble at them, and lifted him out to say hello.  He was delighted, and when I set him down on the ground he reached his fingers through the fence to pet their noses, and called to them by name.

“Careful they don’t bite your fingers, bub,” I said to him.

As he played, I lifted up my eyes, and looked out to the back of the field, which had been tilled a few days earlier for our first planting.   Already, I had scattered a good amount of barley, and put in a few rows of potatoes, but still, from this vantage, the ground seemed only raw and exposed.   One of my teachers said that naked dirt is a wound on the body of the earth, but it seemed also like a blank canvas, beckoning the human imagination to impose its taste for geometry and symmetry, contrast and variety.  I remembered the winter yearning for planting season—a desire to begin marking my beds and gardens, bringing out the transplants, digging furrows, hilling the corn and squash, setting stakes for the pole beans.   This was the moment of highest fantasy, before the season had taught me its lessons: before the turkeys had come out of the woods or the groundhog from its burrow; before the voles had dug their way down to the sweet potato roots, or the weeds risen to choke the barley.  Before reality had shown me that the nourishment of my body would be meager compared to the feast of my imagination.

Efraim was still playing with the goats.  I looked past him, toward the pasture and the giant butternut tree standing in the midst of it.  Everyone who comes here remarks on that tree.  It’s so thick in the trunk that it seems like two trees joined together.  Its branches, almost trunks themselves, jut out at wild angles, spreading broadly across the pasture, and pushing high into the air.  It was still naked, but in previous summers it had grown lush with thick leaves, and set clusters of nuts that dropped heavily as fall came on.  I gathered many bucketsful, from where they had fallen into the undergrowth, feeling out the hard oval shapes with my feet when I couldn’t spot them with my eyes.  Many were left behind, some even finding their way underground and shooting up saplings in the spring.

The old man across the street, a friend of mine, used to live on this land.  He told me that his grandfather planted the tree.  I thought of the legend of the old man planting a carob tree he will never eat from, because he wanted to feed his grandchildren.  A beautiful, uncertain dream.  I looked at the saplings I had loaded into the wagon beside my son, and thought about how there have been mornings when I hesitate to go to him, because I can’t bear the light of his innocence in the heaviness of my knowing.

“Come on, bud,” I said.  “Let’s go.”

***

I bit into the earth with my shovel, and then drove it downward with the force of my boots.  The soil here, toward the back of the field, by the southern fence line, was heavy and still a bit cold.  I wasn’t sure it was suitable for the cherry saplings, but thought I would just plant them and see what happened.  In my mind’s eye, I could envision a row of fruit trees, spreading up above the dead wooden posts, following the lines of wire that were strung between them.

I had pulled the cart across the remnants of last year’s growth, jostling over ruts and hillocks, until we arrived at this place.  The house was at a distance, and the rush of traffic was fainter to the ear.  I had asked Efraim if he wanted to come plant the trees with me, but he chose to stay in the wagon, a few feet away.  As I worked, digging two holes at a distance of several yards, and mixing in compost to fertilize the soil, I kept casting my glance back toward him.

He was playing in and out of the wagon. He would crawl to the end of the carriage, and then slowly work his way over the edge until his feet touched the ground, walk a few steps within the embrace of the metal pull-bar, and then work his way back up.  I don’t think I had ever seen him do something so deliberate.  A child you see every day doesn’t change at all, but then one day he’s no longer a lump of infant crying on the hospital scale, but a toddler climbing in and out of a wagon, of his own volition.

And I thought: the day before he was born, someone said to me, “This is the last day of your life as you know it.”  But it wasn’t like that at all.  I never felt any wrenching change, more as if someone had installed a new magnetic pole inside of me, and slowly, day-by-day, my entire being reoriented toward a different north.

He grew tired of his game, after a while, and called out to me.  I came over and picked him up, and brought him to where I was working.

“Come on, buddy,” I said, “do you want to help abba plant the tree?”

I picked up one of the saplings and laid its roots down in the hole.  Then I back-filled from the pile of dirt I had shoveled out, and started to pat it down with my hands.

“Help abba pat the dirt,” I said.

“Pat the dirt.”

We sat there together with our hands in the dirt, he patting lightly and ineffectually with his little palms, and I pounding away with my fist to work out the air pockets.  I got up to go set in the other tree, but he stayed where he was, and began to play with a dry stalk of last year’s foxtail grass.  As I was finishing the work, he came over to me with the stalk in his hand. It had snapped in the middle, and one piece was dangling from the other.

“Fix it?” he asked me.

I took the stalk in my hand.

“Buddy,” I said, “I can’t fix this.  It’s broken.”

“Fix it?” he asked me again, and his voice seemed a little more urgent.

This is it, I thought.  How do you explain to a child that you’ve bound him to the altar of a world of things you can’t fix?  I fiddled the stalk in my hand, and pretended to make an effort to fix it, or maybe I wasn’t pretending.

“Fix it,” he was whimpering a little now.

“Efraim,” I said, and I hoped I could comfort him with the sound of my voice, even though I knew he wouldn’t understand what I was saying.  “There are just some things in life your abba can’t fix.  I love you.  I’m doing my best.”

I handed it back to him.  I went over to the wagon, lifted off the bucket of water, and poured half of its contents around the base of each sapling.  He was still staring at me, with the broken stalk in his hand, but he wasn’t crying.

“Look what we did, buddy,” I said.  “We planted these trees.”

I lifted him up, and brought him close, so he could play his hand through the sparse leaves.  The frail stem of trunk was sticking out askew from the ground, but I hoped it would straighten when the roots took hold.  And I thought: what is it, to plant a tree in this world?  A plea.  A prayer.  A self-delusion.  An offering.  A promise to my son that I’m always listening for the voice of the angel, even if I can’t always hear it.

“Come on, buddy,” I said.  “It’s getting late.  Let’s go back in.”

I loaded his body, brimming with life, back into the wagon.  As we set off for the journey home, I looked up and saw the broad, old, naked limbs spreading their shadow across the pasture.  “God willing,” I said, “we’re gonna gather a lot of butternuts this fall.  And we’ll roast them on the stove in winter.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Robert Friedman’s Mishpatim d’var Torah, in honor of Gale Friedman z”l

Here is the d’var Torah that Robbie Friedman offered this past Shabbat, to mark six months since the passing of his mother, Gale Friedman, of blessed memory.

D’var on Mishpatim by Robert Friedman | February 14, 2015

In honor of the six‐month yahrzeit of my mother, Gale Lee Friedman (Chasha Leah bat Eliahu)

Part One: Human Interaction

When I was six, I was playing outside my elementary school in Texas. I was in
kindergarten and it was recess. Working up a hardy sweat, I headed over to the outdoor
water fountains nearby the playground. I stood there for a few moments in line patiently
waiting for my turn.

Then, suddenly, another kid came along and cut right in front of me. I couldn’t believe it,such absolutely unacceptable behavior. Without thinking, I did what any sensible six-year old kid would do, and pushed him out of the way. The line for the water fountain had purpose; it provided a system of respect and order for thirsty kids everywhere. Without water fountain lines, what kind of chaotic world would this be?

Despite my defense for worldly order, the next thing I know I was being pulled from the
line by my teacher. She instructed me to sit on the bench near the other teachers.
Apparently, she saw me push this kid and now I was being punished.

I sat there distressed on the bench until my frustration got the best of me. Slowly, in
retaliation, I began unfolding the tall middle finger of right hand, and ever so discreetly, I
began pointing it towards the teacher who was punishing me. I thought my action was
subtle and quite inconspicuous — but apparently not. Another teacher noticed my impolite
gesticulation. Before I knew it, I was being escorted inside the school building and into the
principal’s office. I was soon picked up from there by my not-so-pleased mother.

Part Two: Being Free

Mishpatim, rules – that is our Torah portion this week. V’eleh ha-mishpatim asher tasim
leefnehem – the opening line – “And these are the rules you shall set before them.”
HaShem is speaking to Moses, who will speak to the Israelite people.

From the first sound of the first word of this first line, we find a contraction as poetic as it
is plain – “v’ ” – “and” – “v’eleh ha-mishpatim” – “And these are the rules…” We are to
assume that the beginning of this story falls somewhere in the middle of another one. The
ten holy utterances or commandments that we received last week at Sanai, in the pivotal
and revelatory parsha Yitro, are the ageless bedrock from which we are now stepping onto
the next layer of our formation, Mishpatim.

“V’ ” – “and.” And these are the rules. The pause between these two parshot is but a single
human breath.

We enter Mishpatim engulfed by the visceral fear of dying, the alarming sense of being
alive and free. We are standing at Mount Sanai, back and at distance, having just seen the
thunder and heard the lightening – the almighty smoke that was and is and always will be
HaShem swaddling Moses into Her great white bosom. At this moment, our faith in
HaShem is clear and full. We stand as a people open and ready to receive.

Why did we wait until after the third new moon since our freedom from Egypt to enter the
land of Sanai? Why did HaShem wait three months to begin to hand us the mitzvot for
living together as a free people in holiness? Why was it not like a surprise party, where upon leaving Mitzrahim we immediately opened the doors at Sanai to find HaShem, hiding atop the mountain peak, yelling, “SURPRISE! Happy Commandments!”?

Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev commented: “Had Israel received the Torah immediately after
the Exodus and the parting of the sea, it would have seemed that they accepted it out of
gratitude for the miracles God had wrought for them. Instead, God waited until the effect
of the miracles had worn off and they began to complain. Then their acceptance of the
Torah was a completely voluntary act of commitment.”

We were given time to adjust, to receive. The reality of existing outside Mitzrayim was
beginning to settle in. We were ready to receive our greatest gift – not freedom, but the
framework for a freedom worth living.

The Torah shifts in tone with Mishpatim. One commentary notes: “…up to this point, the
Torah has been a narrative, with occasional references to laws such as those regarding
circumcision and pesach. Now, the emphasis is reversed. From here on, the Torah will
present the rules by which the Israelites are to live, with occasional narrative breaks.”
With this shift, we enter Mishpatim, also known as Seifer HaBrit, Book of the Covenant. It
is said to be divided into four parts: the first three dealing with different areas of law: civil
and criminal, moral and humanitarian, religious and spiritual. The fourth section
culminates in a spiritual ratification of the laws for living.

On the surface these rules seem strange, specific, severe, and outdated. However, we must
consider the context. Many of these laws resemble those of other Near Eastern laws from this era. And rules must reflect the times. Second, as a free people, we needed, as one
teacher puts it, rules that get at the “nitty-gritty of daily life, the laws of slave and
slaveholder, the details of petty feuds, of accidental death and injury, of the goring ox, the
fires in the vineyard, and the thief in the night.”

That teacher, Dr. Barry Holtz of the Jewish Theological Seminary, argues how this parsha
is actually less about rules and regulations than it is about stories and narrative. That “If
ever there was a proof for the necessity of the Oral Torah, it lies in this week’s portion….
Things are not so clear here after all.”

For example, Exodus, Chapter 21, verse 12: “If you kill someone, you will be put to death.”

That is clear. Next verse, I paraphrase, “But if you did not mean to do it, then we’ll find
somewhere for you to hide out.”

But what if no one dies? What if two people fight and one of them hits the other one really
hard and he is in the hospital for several weeks? And after some time the guy in the
hospital is able to finally walk again. Well, says verse 18, the striker is not punished but
must pay for the victim’s “idleness and cure.” If that doesn’t sound like a ripe legal court
case in the making, I don’t know what does.

Or have you heard the one about the ox? If you own an ox and it gores me, for example,
well then that ox has got to go. But if it turns out that wasn’t the first time that your ox
gored someone, well, then your repeated negligence makes you equally responsible. Now
you and your ox have got to go.

These narrative vignettes comprise Mishpatim, the Book of the Covenant. We learn that
daily life is complex and intertwined with the actions of not just the natural and spiritual
world, but the human world. Having friends, families, neighbors, business partners, and
community is tough and requires an understanding of responsibility and accountability. It
requires layers and levels of compassion as it does consequence. It requires clear
reminders about how to care for each other and those less fortunate than us. Any of us
could be widows, any of us could have been orphans, any of us could one day be in need of
food or help, any of us could forget to slow down, relax, and refresh our bodies and minds.
Mishpatim defines the obvious, the mundane, and the holy. It defines how to live our days
justly and how to make-up for it when we don’t. Mishpatim is about living and interacting,
working and praying. It’s about being free each day. It’s about being alive.

Part Three: Standing at the Foot

This week marks six months since my mother passed away. It was the 16th day of August,
the 20th day in the Hebrew month of Av. It was Shabbes, the day of eternal rest. It was her
45th wedding anniversary to my father. It was also a week before she would turn 66.
We were home at her apartment in Dallas. A few years back, my parents sold the home in
which I grew up. They moved from Dallas to Houston for a few years, during which my
mother became sick, and then they moved back to Dallas a few months before she passed.

On that Shabbes day my whole family was present. Me, my two older brothers, our three
wives, five grandchildren, and two great-grandparents, who are my mother’s still living
parents.

At times during those last few days the juxtaposition of little kids running around as my
mother lay increasingly still in her bed seemed too much to me. But my father would not
have had it any other way – the kids, the noise, the laughter — and my mother undoubtedly would have agreed.

The night before that day was incredibly touching and sacred. It was like the many Friday
nights throughout my youth. Friday night Shabbat blessings led by mom. That night we
gathered in her bedroom across four generations, reciting and singing the blessings over
candles, wine, and challah.

My mother, who hadn’t eaten much for nearly six months by that point, was certainly not
consuming much in those last few days. But that Shabbes night, much to all of our
surprise, a bite of challah and a sip of wine passed through her chapped white lips.
I remember thinking in those last few days how remarkable it was that the pace of dying
accelerated so dramatically. My mother had been diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer
about three years before then.

She had trudged through intensive surgery and various rounds of chemotherapy and
radiation. Through it all, and through her pain, she kept looking forward, she kept
laughing at her three sons’ crude senses of humor. (My oldest brother Josh, for example, who always joked with her that I was her favorite son, brought to her the framed wedding photo that she kept in her apartment of me and Shema as she recovered in the hospital after surgery. If nothing else, surely that photo would cheer her up, he joked. And it did.)

By that Shabbes night the decades of her life no longer contained the potential for years or
months, those had quickly transformed into weeks and days and now hours. By that night,
each breath she took was distinct, an intimate, uneasy dance with God. Slow inhalation –
pause – slow exhalation – pause.

When she passed the next day, I stood there with my father and two older brothers,
somehow stunned, in awe, that her fate at last came true. Her chest no longer fell. Her
breath in endless pause. I lightly closed her eyes with my hand and gently kissed her
forehead goodnight.

It is fitting for me to recall my mother this week during a Torah portion dealing with
“rules.” Her rules stemmed from a few of her own clear absolutes: love family, work for
community, love Israel. Like many of our mothers, she did not have a rule book she would
refer to when one of her children acted out. Her law was clear and unwavering. It was
voiced passionately when it was tested; and carried consequence when it needed to. She
had my grandfather’s fiery temperament and my grandmother’s stubborness.

Part Four: Inside the Cloud

At the end of Mishpatim, Moses ascends the mountain to receive the inscribed words of
Torah. The people stand below and wait. And Moshe steps inside the cloud where he
remains on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.

What it must have been like for Moses inside that cloud! Such a direct, personal, and holy
encounter. What must it have been like for Moses to be embraced so passionately and
intimately by the all-powerful and all-giving Shechinah?

Moshe is held in the strength of HaShem’s arms, pressed against Her beating heart. And
through this timeless embrace the Book of the Covenant is transcribed for generations to
behold.

I have thought more about my mother in the past six months than I may ever have. She is
with me as I stroll down the street at night pushing the granddaughter whom she adored
and loved. Our daughter, Matanyah, was an extraordinary surprise in a family where three
dapper sons had thus far yielded four handsomer grandsons.

I think about the rules by which my own mother lived, the ones that defined her as a
daughter, a sister, a wife, and a mother – those that shaped my own evolving identity. For
example, what it must have been like for her in the 1970s to pick up and leave her Staten
Island, New York home, the bedrock of her family’s existence since Ellis Island, and move
with my father and two small children to a wild distant land called Texas!

Her bravery and foresight is, ironically, perhaps what has led me back to a part of the
country I now call home.

I think about how she was the working mother of three sons, and how much work and love
that must have required. I think about how for her, family started with her parents and
children, then quickly spread to embrace aunts and uncles, and the friends we value the most.

I think about her passion for Judaism and Israel. How she took me there when I was nine
with one of my brothers, and I have been back there several times since. A falafel on Ben
Yehuda Street and the winding alleyways of the Old City are a part of how I view the world.
My mother gave me identity, value, and purpose. She gave me high expectations, for
myself and my children. She gave me hell when I did not listen, and guilt trips as I got
older. She gave me more than I realize.

Na-aseh v’nishma, declare the Israelites upon hearing Moses recite the Book of the
Covenant. “We will do, and we will hear.” As I stand here today, this Shabbes, the clouds
breaking over my own mother’s teachings, I find myself beginning to truly hear them.
Shabbat Shalom.

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Adult b’not mitzvah divrei Torah: Amy Mittelman

Today we, as an adult b’nai mitzvah class, are reading the first third of Beha’alotecha, or Numbers, Chapter 8 through Chapter 9, verse 14. Overall this part of Beha’alotecha is about different aspects of the system of ritual purity and impurity.
The beginning of chapter 8 is about the lampstand inside the Tabernacle and how to place it and light it. Exodus Chapter 25, verses 31- 40 described the construction of the lampstand. It was “hammered work of gold, hammered from base to petal.” Aaron, a Levite and high priest, was responsible for the lighting of the lampstand.
The next section of Chapter 8 details the purification of the Levites. Because the Levites were priests in service of “the Tent of Meeting” they had to have a higher degree of ritual purity than the general Israelite population.
Chapter 9 verse 1-14 deals with Passover. In verse 6 some men who were “unclean by reason of a corpse” asked Moses why this should prevent them from offering the Passover sacrifice at the same time as the rest of the community.
Moses speaks to God on their behalf. God responds by giving the men a do over or a Second Passover. Anyone who is “defiled” by a corpse or is on a long journey could still offer a Passover sacrifice but a month later. They were to eat the sacrifice with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. They were to observe all the rules and rituals of the original Passover sacrifice.
All cases of ritual impurity required some remediation. The three major sources of impurity were human corpses and some animal carcasses, Zara ‘at or skin disease, and genital discharges. In the case of human corpses the impurity lasted seven days and could cause other people as well as objects that came in contact with the originally ritually impure person to become impure.
Because someone who touched a corpse was impure for seven days, such an impurity is what prevented the men in verse 6 from attending the Passover festival and making the required sacrifice.
Ritual impurity was not a moral failing. Ritual impurity was a spiritual issue for the Israelites and a way to keep the holy and the profane separate. It allowed the community to keep the Temple and the objects in it as sacred.
Because the men who had touched the corpses were not suffering from a moral lapse, God gave them a chance, once they were ritually pure, to partake in a Passover sacrifice. God was not as accommodating to people who had no reason not to observe Passover. In verse 13 he tells Moses that if “a man is clean … (and) refrains from offering Passover sacrifice” he will be estranged from his kin and have to “bear his guilt.”
God also required that the stranger living within the Israelite community celebrate Passover. “There shall be one law for you, whether stranger or citizen of the country.”
Today, Pesach Sheni on the 14th of Iyar (the Second Passover) is a very minor Jewish holiday that some Orthodox Jews celebrate. Those who celebrate refrain from saying the Tachanun, supplications which are normally not said on holidays. Some also eat left-over matzo as a way to commemorate the sacrificial offering.
When I was first randomly assigned my parsha, I was very surprised to see that it dealt with issues of ritual impurity. I regularly attend Lunch and Learn with Rabbi Weiner and we spent a lot of time last year studying the biblical and rabbinic laws about ritual purity and impurity. This study is part of a larger process of studying Halacha or Jewish laws.
The first thing we studied was the Halacha of Passover observance, another irony. Around the time we were studying ritual purity and impurity, I attended a funeral on Long Island. The synagogue had a pamphlet from Gutterman’s funeral directors entitled “What is a Jewish Funeral.”
The issues of ritual impurity from contact with a corpse are no longer a factor in contemporary Jewish life. The only aspect of ritual impurity that is still a Halachic issue is genital discharges, particularly female menstruation.
There are, however, many rules and customs surrounding death and funerals. The Gutterman pamphlet provided some general rules to follow. The two that struck me as interesting are “visiting with and viewing the remains are contrary to Jewish law, and “flowers and music have no place at the Jewish funeral service.”
The Halacha of funerals is obviously large and complex. This year, unfortunately, I have thought more about Jewish funerals and the rituals surrounding the death of a loved one. In December, my brother Fred died following a short but intense period of having ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease. I got a tremendous amount of comfort from following the Jewish rituals associated with death and funerals. I sat Shiva for seven days and tried to say Kaddish as often as I could during that period. I also felt the support and compassion of this community when many people attended a Shiva service at my home.
As part of preparing for this B’Nai Mitzvah, I have tried to attend the Tuesday morning Masorti minyan as often as I can. My own experience with the death of a loved one has made me realize how meaningful it is for a person in mourning or observing a Yharzeit to be able to say Kaddish. It is a mitzvah to make up the minyan of ten that allows this to happen.
For the ancient Israelites ritual allowed them to develop and maintain a sense of community; distinguishing and preserving sacred space. In the twentieth-first century our needs are not that different. Ritual provides a sense of structure and can generate bonds that tie us together as a community.
There is no longer a central Temple, but each of us can try to foster and preserve sacred space both internally and externally. For me, studying Halacha and preparing for this day as a Bat Mitzvah has enabled me to go further and deeper along my own journey toward sacred space.

Torah Blessings
I have chosen to alter some of the wording of the Torah blessings to better reflect my feelings and thoughts about God and Judaism. In the traditional blessing the word for God is Adonai which actually means my lords. I have chosen to use Yah to convey an all-encompassing sense of breath and life. Yah is also linguistically closer to Yud Hay Vav Hay.
The Torah blessings are usually in the masculine. Hebrew is a highly gendered language. There is no easy way to say something in a gender neutral manner. Because I am a woman I wanted the blessing to represent my identity and underpin the legitimacy of all women’s right to be fully present in receiving the Torah.
The traditional blessing portrays the Jewish people as having been “singled out from all the peoples” to receive the Torah. I do not believe any one group, peoples, or nation is chosen above any other. One’s religion is a personal belief, representing each person’s individual but equal journey.
Finally the blessing refers to God as a king of all worlds. I did not want any language of power or domination in my blessing. The blessing I will read refers to God as Source of life.

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Adult b’not mitzvah divrei Torah: Rebecca Fisher

DUvar – Baha-alotUcha 19-21

One of the first things the rabbi said to our class, as we gathered for the first time, was that our experience would obviously be very different from that of a thirteen-year-old child. For a Rregular ageS Bar or Bat Mitzvah, the ceremony represents coming to adulthood; becoming a Rgrownup,S at least theoretically. For us, this would not be the case since we are already adults.

RBut wait!S the running subtext in my head protested, RthatUs not true!S And I began to think that this ceremony was for me a kind of marker of – could it be, adulthood?

Am I not a Rgrownup?S DonUt I have children, and grandchildren? DoesnUt that alone make me a grownup? Long, long ago, when I first became pregnant with my first child, I believed that becoming a mother would prove that I was an adult – I was, after all, twenty-one years old when my oldest was born!

Becoming a parent certainly propelled me into responsibilities I wasnUt prepared for but learned to handle, somehow. Sometimes well, sometimes not so well. I knew how to love my children, the gift that we all have for free from our own great mother, the ShUchinah, the divine presence that permeates every atom of creation. So I carried my children, nurtured them, and put aside for a while my dream of being a writer.

I hoped that things would work themselves out, and that I would somehow find my place by being patient and allowing it to be. I went back to school and felt myself to be at home, and as the way opened for me I stayed to get my Ph.D in English while my older two children finished high school and college and the younger two went to day care and elementary school and had their own bar and bat mitzvahs. I began teaching, but never in a full time position, and kept writing, off and on, songs and poems and stories and plays, as I had since I can remember. I never seemed to quite finish anything, never moved to another level.

Meanwhile, my parents were growing older and needed help; they returned from their second Aliyah to Israel to be nearer their kids.

My parents were lifelong, ardent Zionists, and raised me to value Israel and Jewish culture. My father was a scholar of Israeli history and archeology, and my mother loved the Jewish people. I didnUt think of them as synagogue-goers although we observed the major holidays; I learned only after their deaths, ten years ago, that my father was the first president of our small, Conservative congregation, in my home town of Greenbelt, Maryland. The Jewish Community Center was built by the people of the town, including the churches; I recall my father giving me a ride – I must have been about three years old — in the wheelbarrow he pushed up the hill from the JCC to our house, after he had brought a load of bricks down.

When I first looked at the lines I am reading from the Torah, Bamidbar 19-21 in parsha Baha-a lotUcha, I thought I would have nothing to say about them. They deal with the allocation of duties to the Levites, who attended to the temple and to the Cohanim. The cohenim had certain obligations and privileges. Only Aaron, and the high priests after him and descended from him, could enter the Holy of Holies. The priestly class acted as intermediaries between the people and God, officiating over the rituals and performing the animal sacrifices. The priests had to follow exceptional rules of purity. They owned no property, but were awarded their food out of the offerings brought by the people to the temple. A note in our text observes that the chief duty of the Levites may have been to practice the music associated with worship.

How could I relate to the designation of a priestly class? I am against the whole idea of aristocracy, and even wonder, with some radical ecologists, if the agricultural production required to maintain a class of priests (and an army) marks the beginning of civilization, and with it the destructiveness of human encroachment on the land of the world.

Then I recalled that after my parents moved here for their last years, my father told me that he was a cohane. As the daughter of a cohen, I am a Rbat-cohane.S The cohenim are Rthe sons of Aaron,S and the tradition has been handed down from father to first-born son for millenia. I once asked my father how far back his lineage went – he said either all the way back to Aaron as designated here in the lines I am reading from BaMidbar, or to the time of the Romans, who introduced Rfalse priestsS to sow confusion among the Jewish people and disrupt their hereditary practices. So my family history goes back at least two thousand years.

Will this generation be the break in the link? Although some congregations continue to allot the first aliyah to a cohen or, failing that, a bat-cohane like myself, the practice has more or less fallen into disuse among non-Orthodox Jews, and what with intermarriage and the embrace of social equality, itUs questionable whether the designation will continue much longer. Most of us believe that people should follow vocations for which they have talent and desire, not familial habit.

So what remains, for me, of this genetic and social history I carry in my own being?

For as long as I can remember I have made up songs, poems, and stories. While my mother loved the arts, always having season tickets to the theater and symphony, and made sure that I had the best piano teacher around, I never saw an avenue to a career in the arts.

Yet turning 65 last year had affected me more than any other birthday. In only 15 years I would be eighty! Would I ever be Ra writer?S

After a long, long lull, and after my parentsU deaths, I resumed writing poetry, often in the form of Jewish raps. I found that retelling stories from the Torah in rhyme comes easily to me, and I have been doing that as well as producing RsecularS works of poetry for the last several years. I began sending my work to a friendly audience. This spring a song I arranged for four voices, the RShehechiyanuS prayer in feminine language, was performed by MakUhela, the regional Jewish chorus of Western Massachusetts of which I am a member.

While earlier in my life I saw writing as a deeply introspective and confessional practice, I now realize that for me the essence of RwritingS is spiritual. The creative impulse is a response to the presence of the divine in our lives. To write, perform, or hear poetry and music is to partake of transcendence. And as a constructor of music and texts, I have a deep desire not only to Rexpress myself,S but also to share my realization and experience of the ecstatic connection to holiness that permeates existence.

Today, RShehechiatnuS is to be sung at our groupUs celebration of bar and bat mitzvah.

To have a prayer I composed sung in a synagogue meets the highest aspiration I can have for my writing.

Today I am a grown-up!

BUruchah At Yah, ShUchinah, ruach ha olam
Shehechiatnu, vikiyimatnu, vihigiatnu lazman hazeh!

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Adult b’not mitzvah divrei Torah: Jane Brodwyn

This is a big year for me, one I have been anticipating without my knowing it for a while. Now 68 years old, most of my B’nai Mizvah year has been as a 67 year old, the same age my father was when he died. I feel I have a lot of life left in me and feel relatively young. It is mystifying to me that he left this world so young. I go to the gym daily, work a great deal, make pottery when I can, and generally stay connected to learning things in an ongoing way. When I saw that the Rabbi was offering an adult Bat Mitzvah class this year I felt drawn to it. I didn’t know what I was saying yes to, and, like many “yeses,” I am growing into this yes, beginning to discover this new (to me) “room.” It is rather ironic because my father rejected religion as a young man and did not encourage a focus on Judaism in our family. We identified as secular, decidedly politically left leaning Jews. I, in retrospect, realize that I have gravitated to the spiritual dimensions of life, this longing a strong one, quite varied, and non-linear.
Shortly after I began the B’nai Mitzvah class, I also started attending Rabbi Nancy Flam’s Torah Class. It was, I believe, there that I heard a reference to Isaac Luria’s Genesis Myth which inspired me to ponder it’s meaning and to make pots that embody this sacred story.
The pots I share speak to Isaac Luria’s re-imagining of Genesis. Making pots has always been a way to “center,” find myself, as well as a way of connecting to an underlying experience of aliveness. I feel connected to the ancient ones of humanity when I work with clay. In this sacred story, imperfect humanity is tasked with gathering the primordial light of G-d that powerfully has dispersed throughout creation when the pots could not contain the light and they shattered (shevirat ha-kelim). From my unschooled perspective as a neophyte, this in-gathering is linked to engaging in my work of “completion.”
Engaging in my bat mitvah studies is part of gathering up the sparks of which Luria speaks. In this sacred story, G-d, occupying everything, contracted to make room for darkness out of which creation arose. My evolution includes being in the contracted state of darkness (tzimtzum) before light (creation) arises with regard to my experience of Judaism. There has been a darkness in me. I did not know what I did not know, for many years. The “yes” to this year of preparation, in a sense, was the shattering of the vessel of what I knew and experienced in my past to make room for new experience. This year is the beginning of the process of gathering up some of the heretofore imprisoned (hidden) sparks that I am now beginning to connect with and weave into an expanded cloth of my existence. As the year has unfolded more elements related to life and death and my pondering life’s fragility have emerged. This past fall my ex husband died suddenly. He too was my age. For the first time in my life I began the practice of saying Kaddish.
I would describe my experience of this year, as one of first putting my toe in the water of my Judaic background, then perhaps my foot, and now I’m beginning to acclimate to the water temperature. Many years ago, a mentor said to me, as I was studying in my doctoral program, that by the end of my schooling I would know just a little bit about psychology. Today, I would say the same holds true for my venturing into the world of my Jewish heritage. The more I venture into the water, the more I realize I know but a little, and the complexity keeps revealing itself to me, as vast and compelling.
My portion of the Torah describes the ages of those that attend to Aaron and his sons. They are what we would call today in the prime of life. For me, ironically, I feel I am in the prime of my life. Despite lacking the energy of an earlier time, the crucible of the past has set the stage for me to be of service with a clarity and willingness to bring to bear the cumulative experiences of my life, now including my developing relationship to Judaism.
Years ago I dreamt of the multifaceted eye of the dragonfly, multiple prisms, colorful, bending light, illuminating particular aspects of what each lens faced. This year’s exposure has given me a glimpse into the vastness of a Jewish way of seeing into the world. This year, my 67th, has evolved, unwittingly into discovering more of its essence. I am finding I am connecting spiritually with the deeper wisdom to be found by realizing that I am not performing, but rather, sharing the words from the Torah, respectfully with others. I am slowly understanding the significant impact of this life-changing experience in a heart felt way. I find this experience is folding into other spiritual pursuits that are already present in my life, like the faceted lens of the dragonfly’s eye, my spiritual pursuits are mutually interpenetrating, reinforcing, and generative as I move forward.
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About These Pots

The inspiration for these pots originates in Isaac Luria’s re-imagining of the Genesis story. G-d, occupying everything, contracted to make room for darkness, to allow the light of creation to manifest. God placed the light into 10 vessels. Unable to contain the primordial light they shattered, (shevirat hal-kelim). In the sacred story, God tasks humanity with gathering the holy sparks of creation to restore and heal humanity. As someone who makes pottery, it occurred to me that part of my journey this year would be to make a vessel for each person in our group. Each pot is unique, burned in the fire, sparks flying, sparks contained. When they go into the fire we don’t know exactly how they will turn out.
Engaging in activities that expand who we are, we are all gathering in this light. I imagine that the sparks of G-d’s primordial light within each person, led each one of us to say “yes” to undertaking becoming a Bat Mitzvah. We began our fourteen month study in one “state,” and, having been burnished like these pots, are now experiencing new ways to connect to Judaism.
My first run of pots failed to embody completely, the glaze firing was unsuccessful. My spiritual response was to return again, discover and recreate anew the pots you see here. I hope that through sharing these pots, people find what I am finding, that a spiritual path includes bowing to success and failure alike, with an openness to rededicate oneself over and over to that which is personally meaningful.

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Adult b’not mitzvah divrei Torah: Dorothy Pam

Stepping Forward
In my Torah portion, Numbers 8:14—16, the Lord reiterates that the first born of the sons of Israel (as well as of the animals) were wholly his by right because he had preserved their lives when the Angel of Death took the firstborn of only Egypt. Despite this debt, God decided instead to take the Levites for himself. This led me to ask “Why the Levites?” Going back to Exodus 32, after Moses came down from the mountain with the ten commandments, finding the Israelites dancing around the Golden Calf, Moses said, ”Whoever is for the Lord, come here!” and all the Levites rallied to him.” Perhaps the Levites were chosen to serve the Lord because they had not been involved with the worship of the Golden Calf, but more likely they were chosen for their loyalty and their readiness to step forward when called by Moses and to carry out the Lord’s terrible punishment to the idol worshippers.
I believe that there are times when one must step forward, even when it is not clear where one is going or what the outcome will be. There are many reasons why I decided to convert to Judaism before my marriage to Bob. Most obviously, one was that I had always felt connected in some way. My Congregationalist mother, as my first grade Sunday School teacher, had led us in making mezuzot, writing out the Shema, and reciting it in English. Later she would take our Pilgrim Fellowship Youth group to visit a Jewish Home for the Elderly because she said they knew the right way to care for old people. It is no surprise that my younger sister also converted, so half of my mother’s grandchildren are Jewish.
But the decisive influence was a dream that I had before conversion: I am standing on a train platform with my blonde little girl (then only a vague future thought) watching a train full of people pulling out of the station. She turns to me and says, “But we don’t have to go.” When I woke I realized what the dream meant and vowed that neither I nor my children would ever be in a position to stand back and watch, to separate ourselves from the fate of my husband-to-be and the Jewish people, but instead to step forward and say in the words of Ruth to Naomi, “Whither thou goest, I will go.” When we sing the “Veshameru” we are reminded of the berit olam, or “covenant that binds the Jewish people to the Jewish faith and Jewish fate, the steadfast devotion (hesed) to all that God would want for us and demand of us” (Kol Haneshamah 307).
When I converted to Judaism in 1968 I took Ruth as my Hebrew name and accepted a new identity as a Jew, but I did not completely give up my old one. Just as my husband’s family had come to the United States to escape religious persecution, so had my Puritan and Quaker ancestors. In the late 1960’s we both valued the role of the individual conscience, the obligation to work for social justice, and the importance of “speaking truth to power.” Like Ruth, when I met Bob I was childless and newly widowed, but unlike the established Boaz, he was young and getting ready to go to Africa with the Peace Corps. When he returned amidst the chaos of the assassination of Martin Luther King, I left the theatre, we got married and took the night train to Grenada Mississippi to integrate a Black elementary school set down amidst the cotton fields. We did not mind being too poor to own a car because that meant the Klan could not waylay us on the road at night.
Our early involvement in the anti-war, civil rights, and women’s rights movements surprisingly led to 15 years of political campaigns and winning party office in Western Queens. Throughout these years we worked at creating a Jewish home and community for our children, hosting Hanukkah and Passover events and even holding a secular shule in our home. Our search for religious education for our children in the end led us to a Reform synagogue where I felt very welcomed, but also rather ignorant, having forgotten the little Hebrew I had learned before my conversion. I promised myself that when the demands of teaching at Hostos Community College (CUNY) and of raising our children stopped taking up all my energy, I would learn more about the prayers and be able to stop faking it so much during the service.
Our move to Amherst in 2010 to play a bigger role in our grandchildren’s lives brought us to The Jewish Community of Amherst, our first Reconstructionist synagogue. In my brief exposure to the teachings of Mordecai Kaplan I feel as if I am moving back to the inner core of my beliefs, a recognition of what I have believed all along, which blends nicely with aspects of my New England Transcendentalism. My new action will be learning more about Kaplan and his contribution to modern Judaism.
I feel very lucky to be here in the first years of Rabbi Weiner’s service and admire his courage in leading this large class of adults in their bar and bat mitzvah studies. I greatly appreciate his commitment, great learning, and sense of humor. I also thank my fellow students who join in this process with me, as well as Batya Perman and Deena Rubin who have worked to teach me Hebrew and to sing trope. And finally, I appreciate my family’s forbearance with me as I have labored to learn enough Hebrew and trope to participate in this eventful day when I step forward to start the process of being a full member of the congregation.
Dorothy S. Pam

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Adult b’not mitzvah divrei Torah: Linda Sinapi and Joni Fraser

I’m going to start putting up some of the divrei Torah from our recent Adult B’not Mitzvah ceremony. The reason I am only putting up “some” is NOT editorial. It’s just that some people expressed the wish to have their work disseminated in this way, and others preferred not to go this route.

Here are two of them, from Linda Sinapi and Joni Fraser.
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Linda Sinapi:

I learned at a young age that the world was not a safe place. I have spent my life creating safety, a home, and community. The JCA has become an important part of my life since my conversion in 1992. Within the JCA I have sought shelter and I have found peace and community. “Spread over us Your canopy of peace…Shelter us in the shadow of your wings… Excerpted from Hashkivenu
One of the things I love about Judaism is that there is always so much to learn and so many questions to ask. The past year has been a whirlwind of learning more Hebrew, to chant trope, attend services regularly, and to read and study Torah. My Torah portion or parsha though assigned randomly touches me deeply. “and from the age of fifty years they shall return from the service of the work, and shall serve no more.” (Numbers 8:25)
When I first read my Torah portion for my bat mitzvah, the passage reminded me of my retirement in a year. I was wrestling with when I would actually retire. However when I read my parsha, I realized that I had thought little about what I was going to do after retirement. And though in Numbers, 8:25, God told the Levites that at age 50 they would no longer serve as Priests, I realized that I would have the opportunity for ongoing service. I am fortunate to be in good health and am choosing to retire at the age of 62. I have worked at the same job for over thirty years and as I have told people so many times over the years: “I love my work and I love where I live. They just happen to be over sixty miles apart.” My long commute since I moved to Western Massachusetts in 1986 has limited the time available to volunteer. I realized as I reread my Torah portion that upon retirement I wanted to serve more.
When I chose to become a Jew over twenty years ago, I was asked by Rabbi Weinberg to write about why I wanted to become a Jew. I had many reasons, but the central reason was tikkun olam. I was intrigued by the concept of tikkun olam, repair of the world. I was fascinated by the Lurianic story of creation and the hope that it holds for restoring a broken world. “Isaac Luria, the renowned sixteenth century Kabbalist, used the phrase “tikkun olam,” usually translated as repairing the world… Luria taught that God created the world by forming vessels of light to hold the Divine Light. But as God poured the Light into the vessels, they catastrophically shattered, tumbling down toward the realm of matter. Thus, our world consists of countless shards of the original vessels entrapping sparks of the Divine Light. Humanity’s great task involves helping God by freeing and reuniting the scattered Light, raising the sparks back to Divinity and restoring the broken world.” Inner Frontier Cultivating Spiritual Practice website
I am dedicated to doing my share to repair a broken world. In thirty four years of social work, I have chosen to work with the underserved and by staying at my job for so long, I have been blessed to witness individuals make significant life changes. How much I may have impacted these changes does not matter. What matters is that I was able to help someone. When the world’s problems fill me with despair, I comfort and support myself with the words from the Talmud: “Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.” These words console me when the world’s overwhelming problems threaten to paralyze me.
I have seen several different translations of Beha’alotecha, one is “when you raise up”, but another is “when you step up”. I am ready to step up and rededicate myself to tikkun olam. My passions lie in two areas: To address the ongoing problem of hunger in our local community and to renew my commitment to the volunteer opportunities at the JCA. I like to imagine that when Aaron lights the menorah in Beha’alotecha, that a light is being lit in myself and that this light will guide me as I seek tikkun olam.
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Joni Fraser:

A Second Chance
In the portion that we read today, it is nearly a year after the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, and Passover (Pesach) is approaching. The Israelites are commanded by G-d, through Moses, to prepare for the celebration and bring a lamb as a Passover offering. In the portion that I chanted, a group of men who were considered spiritually impure because of contact with a dead body, and thus unable to participate in Pesach, approached Moses with a complaint – why were they deprived of the ability to celebrate the mitzvah of Passover? Moses asked G-d, who provides the response: Those who were impure from touching a dead body, or away on a journey, can celebrate Passover exactly one month later, in a festival called Passover Sheni. They can bring a Passover offering, as well as eat matzo and bitter herbs, just as they could have at the Seder. Thus those who through no fault of their own could not participate in the Seder at the appointed time are given the chance to celebrate later.
The message of Passover Sheni for me is that it is never too late, that there is always a second chance in life. For me, the past year’s study for Bat Mitzvah has been a Passover Sheni. I grew up in a Jewish family where religious observance was not a large part for either side. My father was born in Germany to a family that proverbially felt more German than Jewish. Many in my mother’s family married outside of the religion, and Christmas and Easter were celebrated more often, and with more gusto, than Chanukah and Passover. My mother did not seem unhappy that my father had changed his name from Frensdorf to Fraser soon after entering the U.S. My parents had an on-again-off-again relationship with the Reform synagogue in Oakland, California, where we lived. Growing up, I went to religious school for a while, then not at all, then again, and the “not-at-all” part coincided with the learning of Hebrew. But even if I had attended every year, girls in 1968 did not become Bat Mitzvah in our synagogue. That ceremony was only for 13-year-old boys. Moreover, as a 13-year-old with a growing awareness of social change, the synagogue seemed to me as another part of the establishment, a place where class divisions were underscored rather than diminished and where showing up at services seemed like little more than an opportunity to exhibit one’s wealth or status. I didn’t leave Judaism behind as I became an adult – I went to services on the high holidays wherever I lived, kept Jewish practices in my home (particularly cooking!), got married under a chuppah, and assured that my children had the Jewish education that I didn’t have. Both of them learned Hebrew and brought much naches (joy) as they went through the process of becoming Bat and Bar Mitzvahs here at the JCA. But at same time, I always felt a little like I was on the outside looking in, not reading Hebrew, not feeling entirely confident in the practice of Judaism, and not knowing how to enter into the community – even if I told myself that, in the words of Groucho Marx, I really didn’t want to be part of any group that would have me as a member.
Over the past year, Rabbi Weiner has talked several times about how Shavuot, the festival that commemorates G-d’s giving of the Torah to the nation of Israel, has two contrasting stories about what it means to be Jewish: something that is yours whether you like it or not, and something that you choose and claim. I entered the B’nai mitzvah class a little over a year ago wanting to feel a connection to Judaism that I had never felt. I thought that the education and identity that I had felt deprived of as a youth for whatever reasons – my parents, the culture of the times, my experience of the synagogue – would be given to me. At some point in this year of going to services and the group classes with Rabbi Weiner, learning to read Hebrew and to chant my Torah portion, and expanding my knowledge of Judaism and comfort as a member of a congregation, I realized that my Jewish education and identity is something that only I can create and claim, and that feeling connected is an ongoing process. In truth, every day is in a sense a Passover Sheni, bringing with it the opportunity to connect again – to presence of the divine, to each other, and to the community around us. I’ve realized that the journey to Bat Mitzvah has not been about undoing the past, but about transforming the present.
I am very appreciative of Rabbi Weiner’s commitment to our group and his teaching, guidance, support, and good humor over the past year. It’s changed the way that I experience prayer, services, and the reading of the Torah. The Jewish Community of Amherst is so different than the synagogue I experienced in my youth, and I am thankful for how welcoming, accessible, and committed to social justice the congregation is. Thanks to my fellow B’nai mitzvah students and the diverse viewpoints and talents they brought, as well as to Batya Perman for her patient and caring way of teaching me to chant the Torah. My children Rachel and Daniel have been an inspiration to me in this and many other aspects of life. When I felt my ability flagging, I recalled how beautifully they handled their own ceremonies. And I thank my life partner Mark Israel for his support and encouragement in my journey over the course of the past year.

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Legacy, Laura Little’s poem for her mother, Judy Young z”l

This is the exquisite poem that Laura Little wrote and presented at the memorial service last week for her mother, our beloved community member Judy Young z”l.

Legacy

There is a hole near the center of this web I call my life
So near that sometimes I cannot see it
And before I think, I want to tell you
About the raven feather I found on a hike.

And I cannot. You are no longer contained
in a body with a phone that has a number I can call
So you know what you know and the rest…
the rest is up to me now.

And to fill this hole where you were will take years.
It will take a life well lived and a thousand thousand memories of you,
in joy and sorrow and wind and firelight.
It will take more courage than I have.

It will take each of you, here, today,
telling the people you love just how much you love them.
It will take your gardens blooming with all the colors of the rainbow.
It will take unthinkable acts of kindness
in the moments you least expect them, to strangers, and family, and friends.

It will take all the breath in my body
and all the words in my mouth
and it will take sharing them with you.

Or perhaps there is no gap, no empty place, no hole….
perhaps you have simply stepped aside
and now I see the world itself was always standing with you.

In that case, the smallest flower and the brightest star would each
remind me of you even as they made me smile
with the joy that wells up at the sheer improbability
that a flower or a star should exist, let alone that I should exist to see them.

And I think I begin to understand that both are true.
There is a hole; there is not a hole.
You are here; you are not.
Maybe quantum physics isn’t so impossible to understand
if I can I understand that.

For as long as I live, I will miss you.
For as long as I live, thinking of you will make me smile and, sometimes, ask myself
the kind of questions I need to ask.
The kind of questions that always came to mind
when I saw the amazing, deliberate way you chose to live.

Are you happy?
Did you remember to hug the people you love today?
Have you drunk enough water?
Can you be the person you want to spend the rest of your life with?
What are your dreams?
Will you remember to laugh and sing and love, and to just be?

To those questions, my only answer is
that I will keep asking them, of myself and of the people I love
and remember how beautiful you were in asking,
and that your answers touched the sky.

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David Glassberg’s “Climate Justice” d’var Torah from December

David Glassberg has been representing the JCA at recent initiatives to address climate change, some of which have focused attention on “climate justice”–the intersection of the ecological upheaval of global warming with issues of economic and social justice. As part of the JCA’s participation in “Human Rights Shabbat” last December, he delivered this d’var Torah.

D’var Torah for “Vayigash” (Genesis 44:18-47:27), prepared by David Glassberg for Jewish Community of Amherst, December 7, 2013

“Climate Justice and Human Rights”
If you’ve ever sat around the Seder table at Pesach listening to the story of Exodus and wondering how the Jews got to Egypt in the first place, Vayigash is the parsha that fills you in. They migrated from Canaan because of the effects of climate change. The parsha also contains the moving story of Joseph reuniting with his brothers, and ultimately with his father Jacob, after a long absence. Vayigash is largely a parsha about forgiveness and reconciliation, as Joseph puts aside personal animosities stemming from what his brothers had done to him earlier in his life in order to take them in and save them, and the Jewish people, along with the Egyptians, from famine and drought. In reflecting on the life of Nelson Mandela, who died a few days ago, it is truly amazing that like Joseph he emerged from his many years of suffering at the hands of others with a mind clear enough to focus on the task at hand and cooperate with his former tormentors.
However, because this is a human rights Shabbat, I’ll be taking the d’var torah in another direction. When we think of human rights, we usually think about making sure that individuals around the world are free from being tortured, killed, or enslaved. We might extend the concept to claiming that everyone around the world has a fundamental right to adequate food, clothing, and shelter, and to raise their children in an environment free of toxic substances. And while we don’t often articulate this in words, we often act on the belief that everyone in the world has a right to assistance in recovering from the effects of an Act of God such as a tornado, an earthquake, or a tsunami. The near-spontaneous outpouring of charity in the past few weeks for the victims of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines offers only the most recent evidence of this.
But in what some scientists have termed the anthropocene era, when human activities have become recognized as a crucial influence on the global environment, what really constitutes an Act of God? What ethical and moral responsibilities do we have in a time of climate change? Is not only environmental health, but also environmental sustainability, a human right?
I want to skip the debate over whether or not human activities since the industrial revolution have contributed to a rise in the overall temperature of the earth. As Rebbe Daniel Patrick Moynihan, alav ha-shalom, once said, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinions but they are not entitled to their own facts.” The overwhelming majority of scientists (97%) believe in the existence of the “greenhouse effect,” through which a dramatic increase in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (an estimated increase from 280 ppm in the mid 1700s to 390 ppm today) has trapped a greater amount of the sun’s rays and made the planet warmer. Using a combination of modern and historical data, scientists estimate that humans have sent a total of 305 billion metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere since 1751; half of these emissions have occurred since the mid-1970s. At the same time, the decades with the highest average temperatures in the 160 years since temperatures have been recorded are 2000-10, 1990-2000, and 1980-1990. Scientists predict further increases in average temperature—from 2 to 5 degrees—from now through the rest of this century.
Scientists observe several changes happening right now as a result of this global temperature increase: 1) hotter, drier weather has contributed to an increase in the number and size of wildfires in Australia and the American West; 2) warmer temperatures have reduced the size of polar ice caps and glaciers, contributing to a rise in ocean levels; the shrinkage of glaciers in the Himalayas and other mountain ranges also consequently threaten the water supply of the peoples who live below them; 3) tropical storms and hurricanes crossing over oceans with warmer temperatures have grown more severe.
I don’t think any of this is news to you. Things change. The moral and ethical question facing us is what we should do in response to the change. In last week’s parsha, Joseph interprets the Pharaoh’s dream about seven thin cattle devouring seven fat cattle as a warning that he should store up grain during the next 7 years of plenty in order to survive the 7 lean years that will follow. Pharaoh follows that prudent advice, so that in this week’s parsha, which takes place during the second of the lean years, Joseph has grain to distribute to the starving Egyptians as well as the Jews arriving from Canaan. Interestingly, Joseph does not give away the surplus grain, but sells it to the Egyptian feudal lords in return for the title to their lands, making them the Pharaoh’s serfs. They now had to give 1/5 of their harvest to the Pharaoh. Joseph expects the same rent from the Jews when they settle in the land of Goshen. I’ll leave it to you to figure out what this says about God’s position on feudalism, sharecropping, and private property vs. nationalization. But at the minimum, the parsha makes a strong case for planning ahead in the event of environmental disaster. If only our political leaders heeded the scientists as well as the Pharaoh heeded Joseph.
When it comes to climate change, planning ahead means two things: mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation means reducing the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that we release into the atmosphere. Adaptation means acknowledging that at the same time that we mitigate there are changes already in motion that require immediate action, such as building seawalls against a rising tide or moving people out of flood zones, inoculating against the expansion of insect-borne diseases (e.g. ticks now live here almost year round), and assisting “refugee species” of plants and animals to migrate further north.
This is not only a matter of leaving a more hospitable environment for future generations, but also a matter of basic justice and human rights. Is it fair that the poorer nations of the world, like the Philippines, suffer the consequences of Americans unwilling to reduce the amount of carbon that we spew into the air to support our relatively affluent lifestyles? You can commit to reducing your “carbon footprint” on an individual basis (driving less, getting a free energy audit and insulation materials from MassSave). But even more important is to act collectively to influence public policy. In Massachusetts right now, there are bills that you can support that would end the use of coal-burning power plants, divest the state pension system from fossil fuel companies (Senate Bill 1225, there’s an effort to get it reported out of the Committee on Public Service in the next two weeks—see cards in lobby), and persuade Governor Patrick before he leaves office to appoint a commission to investigate the implementation of a carbon tax.
Even closer to home, there’s a disproportionate impact that climate change poses to poor people and people of color, Warmer summers mean more ozone alerts and more asthma. Poor people often live in low-lying areas, like the Holyoke Flats or East Boston, more subject to flooding, and have fewer resources to pay for flood insurance or to rebuild. Shifting agricultural zones result in higher food prices. The MassSave program for energy conservation, which everyone pays for as part of their electric bill, helps homeowners to lower their heating and air conditioning bills but leaves renters out in the cold since most landlords don’t bother with the program, especially when their renters pay for the heat.
What can we do about this individually, and as a Congregation? On September 28, the JCA co-sponsored, with 40 other groups, a Climate Justice conference in Springfield. The event was organized by Climate Action Now, an environmental organization based here in the Upper Valley, and Arise for Social Justice, the poor people’s advocacy group based in Springfield. Well over 200 people showed up, not only white middle class environmentalists but also African Americans, Latinos, and local residents with lower incomes concerned about where they live. Out of this extraordinarily diverse mix, unusual for an “environmental” gathering, came priorities for action. They included pressuring the PVTA to extend bus service from Springfield and Holyoke to link up with the 5 College system; developing a comprehensive climate plan for Springfield outlining specific measures for mitigation and adaptation; organizing a campaign to stop pollution arising from the incineration of trash on nearby Bondi’s Island; and obtaining vacant lots and other spaces for Springfield youth to grow healthy and affordable food.
This last effort is one that members of the JCA might get behind. There’s an organization in Springfield, “Gardening the Community,” that is essentially an inner city CSA. The members have set their sights on obtaining a piece of abandoned city property on Walnut Street where they can build greenhouses. Right now, they need money for legal assistance, soil testing, and other expenses. Then they want to start building hoop-style greenhouses with the help of UMass Amherst Agricultural Extension specialists and volunteers from up and down the Valley. Along with that, they could use volunteers to mentor the youth growing the food as well as additional funds to help make the family food shares affordable. I’ve left information about this on the table in the lobby, and of course can tell you more about it after services.
I want to close by returning to parsha Vayigash. At the very end, it says “And Israel dwelt in the land of Egypt in the country of Goshen; and they took possession of it, and they were prolific and multiplied greatly.” (47:27)
The Hebrew word vayei’achazu (“and they took possession of it”) literally means “and they took hold of it,” but also translates, “and they were held by it.” Both interpretations are cited by our sages: Rashi translates vayei’achazu as related to the word achuzah, “land holding” and “homestead”; the Midrash interprets it to imply that, “The land held them and grasped them… like a man who is forcefully held.” Achuzah also appears earlier in Beresheit when the ram that is sacrificed in place of Isaac is caught in a thicket. The Midrash goes on to explain that the use of achazu in Vayigash, that the Jews not only held the land but were held by it, refers to the galut, the exile, foreshadowing the Jewish people later being held against their will as slaves in Egypt.
However, I want to offer a different interpretation. All of us, whether we acknowledge it or not, are “held by the land.” We are not held by force, although there is no place else that we can go, but rather held in a loving embrace. The Earth has been good to us, and we have the responsibility to take care of it, to keep it hospitable for future generations of our species as much as we can for as long as we can. We also have the responsibility, from an environmental justice perspective, to take care of one another. As the climate changes around us, just as Joseph took care of Egyptian and Jew alike during the famine, those of us living here in relative affluence can bear the cost of mitigation and adaptation to ensure the health and comfort of our less fortunate neighbors in the Connecticut River Valley and throughout the world.

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Ziva Harmatz’s Korach d’var Torah

Thank you to Ziva for this wonderful d’var Torah. We look forward to hearing you teach on Korach again next year!

Lessons from Korah: When to Speak, When to Listen, When to Act.

I converted to Judaism one year ago (in the Hebrew calendar). During my bet din, one of the rabbinic court asked me what was next for me spiritually which surprised me because I had not thought at all about what would happen after the bet din and mikvah ceremony. I replied that I wanted to adorn the sanctuary and make the Torah stories my own. I really didn’t even know what I meant by “making the stories my own” until, just a few short weeks later I realized that I was seeing far more in the stories than I ever had before and was glimpsing aspects of the characters that had gone un-noticed before. At first I thought it was just because they had become more familiar until I realized the same was true of everything I was reading. It was as if a scrim had been removed from the written word for me. I was surprised, even shocked. I have been a voracious reader all of my life, always focusing first on the narrative line and discovering only upon re-reading books that the characters came alive for me and revealed the motivations that inspired or destroyed them and sometimes not even then. But I wasn’t sure what, if anything, I should do in response to this experience except enjoy it. Then, after hearing a deeply personal, beautiful, and insightful d’var by Diana Brewer (or Simcha) just a few weeks after her own conversion to Judaism, I decided I would prepare a d’var Torah each year based on my conversion parsha, Korah. This is the first.

So to Korah, at least the first few verses. Korah and 250 of his followers challenged Moses’ leadership by disputing his role as the spiritual leader of the Israelites and Aaron as High Priest. As a result of this defiance, Korah, his 250 followers, their households (including wives, concubines, servants and children) were swallowed up in the earth. As a further demonstration of God’s power, Aaron and 12 chieftains from the ancestral houses gathered up their staffs together and the next day Aaron’s staff was flowering, indicating divine intervention. So God’s reaction to defiance was first destructive and then creative. Interesting, in the coming months I’m going to see if this pattern continues, but that is for another day!

My first reaction to the parsha was that God’s actions seemed disproportionate to Korah’s offense, especially when you consider how many people were destroyed and how those watching must have been affected, even traumatized through witnessing their destruction. I started to think about Korah and what his motives were to see if that would help me to understand such a harsh punishment. In reading commentary, there seem to be at least two dominant schools of thought. One is that Korah was jealous of Moses’ position and authority and may even have doubted Moses’ special relationship with God. The second, minority opinion, is that he yearned to be closer to God by entering the holy of holies along with or in place of Aaron. Two very different reasons for the challenge to Moses’ leadership. One might think that the reason behind the motivation was important and might have changed the outcome. I am not so sure that is the case. Whether it was pride or longing, Korah’s downfall began with desire, a desire for something different than the role that had been allotted to him. He was coveting Moses’ role or Aaron’s role, thus violating the 10th commandment “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male of female slave, or his ox or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s”. I and many commentators find this commandment the most interesting in some ways because it is the only commandment that speaks to one’s thoughts and feelings (including desire) rather than one’s deeds. It is also the only commandment whose observance is between us and God. All of the other commandments tell us to do something or not do something. Other people can witness our observation or disobedience of the other commandments, but not this one. Who can know our thoughts except ourselves? Rav Eliyahu of Vilna (The Vilna Gaon) said “Desires must be purified and idealized, not exterminated”. This seems to acknowledge that desires will always exist but we have the ability to influence where they lead.

Let’s say, for the moment, that Korah’s motives, his desires, were more selfless than selfish, that his reasons for doubting Moses arose from a genuine concern that Moses was an ineffective leader in some way and that his lack of leadership was having a negative effect not just on Korah but on the welfare of the Israelites as a whole. Let’s say Korah had some ideas that might improve things. What were Korah’s options? He could have had a quiet, respectful, and deferential conversation with Moses. Stated his position and then let it rest. If that had been the case, the commandment would not have been violated. But Korah did not stop there. In his own thoughts, he built a story of what could and should be different. He probably mulled it over and over in his mind. We are still assuming that Korah was concerned for the welfare of all the Israelites, not his own self interest. So far, he is an OK guy, maybe a little frustrated, maybe a little annoyed. Probably, he has stopped listening to the people that think Moses is just great. Now he is approaching the danger zone. Now he is beginning to think he could do better. A violation of the commandment but one that only affects him since it stays in his own mind. He might be in trouble with God, but no one else knows about his transgression yet. God and Korach will “settle up” on Yom Kippur.

Now let’s say that Korah sat down one night and talked with his wife about what was troubling him. As she listened, did she agree or disagree? Did she remain silent? I tend to think that Korah’s wife knew his thoughts and made no attempt to intervene, thus playing a part in his downfall. She is not mentioned in the parsha and was swallowed up in the earth with all the others. Another wife did take action and thus saved her husband, herself, and her household and she is mentioned (On’s wife).

Now Korah talked with his close friends and they agreed with him or maybe he had to persuade them to take his side, support his point of view. Maybe one of them had a grudge against Aaron or Moses. Maybe one of them was afraid of freedom and longed to return to Egypt where the Israelites were slaves but everyone knew what to expect. Maybe the uncertainty of what was happening was too frightening and mitzrayim seemed better than the desert.

Maybe, after talking his concerns over with his family and some of his friends, they began to agree with him and they spoke with their friends and so on and so on. Maybe they forgot or didn’t realize that their wives and concubines, servants and children all listened in their tents to these whispers. Whispers are always compelling. They entice us to listen closely or entice us to turn away. Maybe some of the Israelites heard and were compelled to lean forward and listen, and then pass the whispers on, a little louder, to just a few more people.

So, now there are 250 people who are behind Korah and they are openly disagreeing with Moses. Just speaking, not doing anything, at least not in the parsha although the Mishnah embellishes the narrative in some interesting ways. When they do act, they do as Moses instructs them: to appear before the Ark with their fire pans. This is the first action that takes place and ultimately leads to their doom.

So what do I glean from this? The first is that our thoughts matter and have effects not just on ourselves but on others. How many of us talk to ourselves either silently or aloud, listing errors we perceive in others, begrudging and, yes, coveting their accomplishments or possessions? Their job? Our thoughts become a well worn path. Even if we never share them with anyone else, they narrow our thinking, taking us to a personal mitzrayim, a narrow place that becomes narrower and narrower with time, trapping us within the confines of our own discontent. These kinds of repetitive thoughts dig a groove in our unconscious and conscious minds, crowding out other thoughts and experiences that are life affirming and appreciative of the glory of the world and the beauty in our lives.

But rarely do these thoughts remain inside our heads, which brings me to my second observation. Thoughts translate into speech. Whatever we say to ourselves we generally say to others. We may not say everything to everyone but the intimate conversations we share with our family and close confidantes may be overheard or repeated by others. So now they join us on the well worn path. If the thoughts we speak are jealous, the path is narrow and dark. If the thoughts that we share are joyful, the path widens and glows with light. Our thoughts determine which it will be. So examining and sometimes wrestling with our thoughts is important not just for our own well being and connection to the Divine (by which I mean our soul’s best attributes) but to others as well. What we think matters and what we say matters. The longings of our hearts, the thoughts within our minds, they all matter. And our speech matters. God created the world through speech, what could be more powerful than that?

In her incredibly beautiful interpretation if Nishmat Kol Hay, Marge Piercy captures this essential truth in one verse:

“We are given the wind within us, the breath to shape into words that steal time, that touch like hands and pierce like bullets, that waken truth and deceit, sorrow and pity and joy, that waste precious air in complaints, in lies, in floating traps for power on the dirty air. Yet holy breath still stretches our lungs to sing”.

Sooner or later, our thoughts and speech will translate into action. For Korah, his certainty that he was right led him and all his followers to challenge Moses in front of the entire community in front of the holy of holies. And they and all those dependent upon them died. Obliterated for all time? Perhaps. But the sons of Korah appear again in the Torah, perhaps as a reminder to us that people like Korah appear from time to time. Literature is full of these characters. Shakespeare’s Iago, whispering in the dark with Othello listening, and Desdemona lost. Asimov’s The Mule, who has the power to reach into people’s minds and alter their emotions leaving their personalities, memories and systems of logic unchanged.

Perhaps the descendants of Korah remind us that we can all be like Korah, coveting that which is not ours to have. Freud claimed that we are all jealous in some way of one another. We all have the capacity to doubt and covet. When the descendants of Korah re-appear they are reminders to us of the risk and reward we face when we pursue our thoughts down a well worn path, when we seek to influence or follow others, when we translate speech into action. Think back to a time when you were sure you were right and you spoke before examining your thoughts or wrestling with your desires and the impact it had on the people who agreed with you and the innocent bystanders that didn’t even know what was at stake. I can think of times in my own life when I have been too quick to speak and landed in a pit of despair as I damaged relationships, hurt people I loved, and ultimately wounded my own soul. These scars don’t heal for anyone although we can hope that, as with Aaron’s staff, creation follows destruction.

So how do we avoid or at least minimize these experiences in our lives? How do we cultivate habits that protect us and the world from thoughts that arise? How do we avoid Korah’s doom? It takes discipline. To notice when we set off on a path where all we can think and feel is our discontent. To remember that there are other ways to think and that the way we think and what we say matters to the world.

It takes discernment, because sometimes we have something important to say. Sometimes we hear something that is not right, that requires direct action and speaking up in ways that are selfless, that right wrongs, that lift up the helpless. Sometimes, we need to listen to whispers in the dark and sometimes we need to turn away. How do we cultivate discernment of knowing which path we will take each day?

For me, a daily habit is needed. I meditated for many years in the morning until the thoughts in my mind took over and I could only think them, not notice them, or examine them much less stop, or change them. I needed some new thoughts and habits. What helps me now is prayer:

Shema, Israel. Listen. Hear. We are all connected, all part of the divine, all an equally important piece of creation. What we hear and what we say has the ability to create or destroy.

The morning prayers remind us of things we take for granted: the earth beneath us, the breath within us, the life we have been given with all its joys and sorrows.

Shema, Israel. These are the thoughts to listen to. Speak them aloud. Even when things are really, really hard and we are frightened or alone or despairing, we can find something to be grateful for. We can find something to say that is kind and shares the wisdom of our heart. We can choose to remain silent when we should and speak when we must. Years ago, before I knew I was Jewish, I wrote this poem which is much like a prayer:

Sit Every Day

Sit every day.
Shed the skin of lives not your own so that you may feel the day in all its pains and pleasures.

Do not dull your pain or hide from it, rather embrace the wisdom at the heart of it.

Find your true path and follow it as you would the North Star. Your compass is your own and will guide you if you only have faith and hope and love.
For your heart is wise even when your soul is lost in the dark.

I am so grateful to have found my true path and I know my north star is Torah. My thoughts may still take me into darkness, but remembering the Shema brings me back to a path of wisdom and discernment that what I think and do and say matters to the world.

So, back to the beginning at the beit din a year ago? The second thing I said to the beit din was that I wanted to adorn the sanctuary. I choose to adorn it with my silence and my speech, choosing carefully what is most called for in every given moment.

Shabbat Shalom

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