Monday, December 16, 2013

Why I Am Shaving My Head

In honor memory of Sam Sommer, Shmuel Asher Uzziel ben haRav Michael Aharon v’haRav Pesach Esther, 8 November 2005-14 December 2013

Monday, December 16, 2013

Sammy’s parents, Phyllis and Michael, were my classmates all the way through rabbinic school, from our first day in Jerusalem to ordination day in Cincinnati. Michael and I met during our interview process on the HUC-JIR campus in Cincinnati. I remember Michael cracking jokes as we chatted nervously before our Hebrew language exam. That was a long time ago. Phyllis was one of the very first people from our class whom I met after arriving in Israel; she was certainly the first to invite me to her home for Shabbat dinner. I can still recall that Shabbat gathering vividly—most of our class was there, and friendships begun that night I cherish to this day.

Phyllis’s gift for convening people into meaningful community was evident from that first encounter. She’s been bringing people together ever since. It’s part of who she is, as a rabbi and a parent and a human being. Because we were classmates, and because she is a generous and virtuosic blogger, and because a handful of times over the years we have seen one another or spoken by phone, I’ve been able to learn a great deal from Phyllis: as a rabbi, a parent, and a human being.

When Sammy was born, I was pregnant with my first child. I’ve watched Phyllis's kids grow up next to mine through the stories and pictures she’s shared online. When Sammy’s cancer was diagnosed, I felt a cold shadow of what it would be like to hear that news about a child of my own. Because it could just as easily be my child, or yours, if you have one. Every day it isn’t my child is a blessing for which I give thanks, but I’m done with gambling.

It’s time to find a cure. For Sammy, who is gone and has left us breathless and broken, and for Phyllis and Michael and Sammy’s siblings and their whole family. For the college acquaintances and neighbors and friends and millions of people I’ll never know whose children have died of cancer, for the people I have known without knowing they’d lost a child to cancer. Yes, for all those, but also for me, and for my child and my parents, and for you, and for all the children and parents now living and still waiting to be born.

Save a life, and you save an entire world. We lost the world this Shabbat, Sammy. Let’s try not to do that again.  

Like the Nazirite offering her hair at the end of her vow, like the captive foreign women who must shave their heads before joining the Jewish community, so I after learning that Sammy’s cancer was incurable, and now upon his death, will make a new start, in a world I would not have chosen, a world without Sammy, a world in which I can no longer pretend that childhood cancer has no dominion over me and my loved ones. That is why I’m shaving my head, and that’s why I’m asking everyone I know to support this cause. The first miracle I was praying for is lost. The next is still within our reach.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Hanukkah in Egypt

Standing on the parted shores of history
we still believe…

that wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt
that there is a better place, a promised land;
that the winding way to that promise passes through the wilderness.

That there is no way to get from here to there
except by joining hands, marching
—from Mishkan T’filah: A Reform Siddur

It has been a tough couple of weeks at my house.

First, on November 13th, four days after his eighth birthday, Samuel “Superman Sam” Sommer’s family, and the world, received the devastating news that his leukemia had returned, and that it is incurable. The little boy who inspired our Yom Kippur bone marrow donor drive, son of my friends and colleagues Rabbis Phyllis and Michael Sommer, is dying.

Then, early on November 17th, our cousin’s 20-year-old daughter was killed in a traffic accident. We heard this stunningly bad news on the 18th. As I write this, I am returning with Alec and our girls from Anna’s funeral in Illinois. Our hearts have broken. Just like every minute of every day, somewhere, someone’s hopes are destroyed, someone’s heart is broken.

If I weren’t already committed to an awareness of life’s uncertainty and fragility, and therefore to a life lived in faith, I would be now. The God I believe in neither causes car wrecks nor allows them to happen; my God does not determine who gets cancer and who survives. But I do believe, as a wise layperson once reminded me, that “God provides”; I would only add, “for those who have faith.” Call it God, the universe, or one’s own best judgment: whatever we feel is guiding our steps, we can only trust in it and walk bravely into the future—or risk paralysis by pain, fear, and doubt. Life is fragile, but resilient. It stubbornly persists wherever it can, though separated from death, its own destruction, by nothing more than a hair’s breadth. Somehow, Anna’s sister and her parents will go on. Sammy’s family will go on, and Sammy too, as far as he can. We all will.

With the gathering darkness heading into midwinter, we increase our Hanukkah lights each night. We acknowledge our reality, yet we neither despair nor surrender. We pray for miracles. In nature, light and life will return. It will catch us by surprise, and bless us.

Until then, the only thing any of us can do is to join hands, marching together, trusting that we will somehow get from here to our better place. Though it so often turns out not to be where, or what, we expected.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Thanksgivukkah: What Makes This Night Different From All Other Nights?

 In case you’ve tuned out Facebook, Stephen Colbert, and all the Jewish and mainstream press for the last six months and so hadn’t heard: the first day of Hanukkah falls on Thanksgiving this year. Jewish entrepreneurs are printing t-shirts and crafting turkey shaped Hanukkah menorahs (“Menurkeys”). Bloggers and publicists alike are creating new names for this phenomenon: Thanksgivukkah. Thanukkah. Hanukkagiving. That’s because…

…This is a highly unusual phenomenon. Depending on who you ask and how carefully you read, Thanksgiving coinciding with the first day of Hanukkah is a once-in-eternity occurrence; or it will happen again, but not for over 70,000years; or it hasn’t happened for about 125 years and won’t happen again foranother 150 years.

By the way, if you’re thinking, “Wait! The first day of Hanukkah on Thanksgiving means we’ll light the first candle the night before Thanksgiving,” you’re right. According to Jewish practice, days begin at sunset, so we’ll light the first candle Wednesday evening as we begin prepping all the make-ahead parts of the Thanksgivukkah feast, or shlepping to our out-of-state destinations, and the second candle on Thursday night, over the ravaged remains of the fried turkey—or tofurkey, or turkey latkes, or whatever.

And that’s before we expand the calendrical search to years when the first night of Hanukkah falls on Thanksgiving (placing the first day of Hanukkah on the Friday after Thanksgiving, a somewhat more frequent occurrence).  In any case, it’s still a highly unusual phenomenon, and kind of cool.

What’s most interesting to me, though, is the way in which this overlap is highlighting some common themes that run through the two holidays—and always have (always since the invention of Thanksgiving, anyway)—whether or not they overlap.

Hanukkah is a holiday that celebrates survival, and religious freedom. Say what we will about the Puritan Pilgrims and their behavior toward the Native Americans, we cannot deny that they sought and found religious freedom in the New World, nor that, notwithstanding a few setbacks along the way, the nation their descendants, and others, later founded has been a place of unparalleled religious freedoms for Jews.

And then there’s this business of giving: giving thanks, giving gifts.  Thanukkah, Hanukkah: we don’t need our festival to coincide with Thanksgiving to make these connections.

“Hanukkah,” after all, is the Hebrew word for “dedication,” as in the re-dedication of the Temple after its desecration by the Syrian-Greeks in the 2nd century B.C.E., and that re-dedication, after years of punishing occupation and war, would have required the mustering of every gift at the Jewish people’s disposal. How thankful do we imagine our ancient ancestors felt on this occasion?

The giving of Hanukkah gelt, a Yiddish term for “coins” or “money,” especially to children, is a tradition whose origins are lost to history. Some say it’s related to the Hasmoneans’ newly won right to strike their own national coins following their victory. Others trace it back to the Talmudic dictum that every Jewish household must light Hanukkah candles all eight nights, even if they must take up a collection in order to do so. And so on. Today we enjoy foil-wrapped chocolate “gelt” on Hanukkah, and many families have made it a Hanukkah custom to give tzedakah, sometimes to a different recipient for each of the eight nights.

On Hanukkah, we give thanks for our survival (so far!) as a people and a tradition in the face of repeated attempts to destroy us and our faith. We give thanks for the prosperity and freedom we enjoy today. We give, as much as we can, to those less fortunate than ourselves. Not just this year, when Hanukkah falls on Thanksgiving, but every year.

Happy Hanukkah. And pass the cranberry chutney. (Try it on the latkes. Trust me.)

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Songs of Love, Fields of Cotton

Cotton Harvest, by Kimberly Vardeman, via Wikimedia Commons

[First published in the October edition of the Hebrew Union Congregation Temple Topics (our monthly newsletter): seasonal images, a favorite poem, repairing the world with a little self-love.]

It is so unusual to find ourselves at the beginning of October and already the whole cycle of fall holidays behind us—not only Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but Sukkot and Simchat Torah as well. It’s all gone by so quickly, I can’t help the feeling that I’m still processing all the ideas and spiritual work of the season.

Or perhaps this is no different than any year—the High Holy Days are supposed to inspire us to carry these elevated patterns of thought and action into all the days and months that follow, as best we can. When “the gates close” on another Yom Kippur, we remember, in words found elsewhere in our liturgy: the gates of repentance are never closed. Not only may we continue the next morning in our quest to know ourselves better, to turn a better aspect of ourselves toward the world; we must. The next morning, and every morning after that.

Yet, so often, we fail. We forget. We grow complacent. That’s why we need Yom Kippur, the great Day of Atonement, though God and the universe stand open to our efforts at repentance and repair in every moment.

Perhaps after so many years of associating the onset of the holidays with the cotton harvest, the snowy white softness spilling over the edges of everything, lining the roads, collecting in corners of buildings, even insinuating its way indoors, stowing away on the soles of our shoes—we can’t help now but take note of our own souls, straying already from our Holy Days’ intentions, like so many scraps of cotton fiber caught on the breeze.

Perhaps we should collect a few scraps of cotton this year, keep them by us as a reminder, like the notes we are supposed to carry always in our two pockets: “I am but dust and ashes” at one hand, and “The world was created for my sake” on the other.

The cotton does this for us, like a song from the earth.

I offer you here another song, a poem, to carry you through the end of this year’s harvest and beyond:

Love After Love

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other's welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

by Derek Walcott


The seeds of goodness you were born with are still there. Remove the hard shell you have allowed life’s hardships to deposit upon you. Search out what’s beneath. “Take down the love letters,” and read them again.

Keep at it.

Dig deep.

Find that lovely, true self; “peel your own image from the mirror” of your true soul, and hold it fast. It is you.

Fall in love with yourself again, as Mr. Walcott suggests. Now allow that love and compassion to overflow the banks of yourself, to embrace the entire world.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Preparing for Passover, the Spiritual Edition

courtesy of Stephen Ticehurst

Look up “preparing for Passover” on your favorite internet search engine, and you’ll find lots of advice. Cleaning, shopping, cooking, even napping gets its due. But it takes some digging down to find any reference to what I’d suggest is the most important aspect of Passover preparation: attending to the needs of the spirit.

Just as we have a period of preparation leading to the High Holy Days in the fall, it is appropriate that we spend some time getting ready for our spring festivals: Passover and, seven weeks later, Shavuot, are the “high holy days” of the second half of the Jewish year. We are now about as far as we can get in the calendar from Yom Kippur and the spiritual reckoning that comes with it; after the release and ribaldry of Purim, it is time to reset our internal compass, to focus once again on questions of ultimate importance.  Spring cleaning isn’t only for the insides of our homes; stripping away the hametz, the leavening or puffiness, of our spirits brings its own considerable rewards.

Passover recounts the ancient tale of our people’s redemption from slavery in Egypt; our re-enactment of this tale each year in the form of the Passover Seder makes this the annual season of our redemption, too.  Mitzrayim, the Hebrew name for Egypt, also means “narrow places.” From what mitzrayim do we wish to free ourselves, and others? What changes must we make in order to get from here, to there?

This year, I thought it might facilitate the journey to create a course of study or meditation in the three weeks or so leading up to Passover. (I was directly inspired in this by my friend and colleague Rabbi Michael Holzman, spiritual leader of Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation, who for the last few years has developed a similar practice during the month of Elul, leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.) I shared this guide with my congregants in Mississippi and Colorado earlier this week, and now I share it with you. During these final days of Adar and as we enter the holy month of Nisan, as the moon wanes and then waxes again to its Passover fullness, I invite you to join me in engaging with and reflecting on words of wisdom from Torah and our sages, both ancient and contemporary. 

Here is one to start on, from Rabbi Kerry Olitzky’s Preparing Your Heart for Passover:

The rabbis suggest that … leaven [the stuff that makes bread rise, the stuff we don’t eat during Passover] transcends the physical world. This leaven, this hametz, also symbolizes a puffiness of self, an inflated personality, an egocentricity that threatens to eclipse the essential personality of the individual. Ironically, it is what prevents the individual from rising spiritually and moving closer to holiness. Thus, what hametz effectively does in the material world is exactly what it precludes in the realm of the spirit. That’s why it has to be removed. Rabbi Arthur Waskow calls this kind of hametz the “swollen sourness in our lives.”

And a few questions to send you on your way:  Where is the hametz, the “swollen sourness” in your spiritual life? Why might hametz, which causes bread to rise, cause the spirit to shrink away from holiness and God? How might you begin to search out this metaphysical hametz of the spirit? 

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Masks and Miracles

Women of the Wall celebrating Rosh Hodesh Adar.
By Tal King Photographer

Purim's over, but not for my friends at Temple Or Hadash in Fort Collins, Colorado, where it has been rescheduled for this coming Sunday, due to snow. So even as my thoughts turn to Passover, I'm still not quite finished with Purim. I first shared a version of these thoughts this past Shabbat at Hebrew Union Congregation in Greenville, Mississippi. 

Purim is the festival on which we celebrate the power and the pleasure of masks and unmasking. We play with fixing and unfixing our identities in order to figure out, at the deepest level, who and what we are, what we stand for, where we will bend and where we draw the line.

In the story we tell about this raucous, playful day, Esther and Mordecai are willing to compromise away much of Esther’s Jewish identity—external observances, certainly any public statements of faith or affinity—in order to secure her position as Queen of Persia. But we see Mordecai literally standing up for his faith in his refusal to bow to Haman (Jews are forbidden to bow not to other people as a sign of respect but rather to other gods; Jewish tradition suggests that perhaps Haman presented himself as a demigod, much as Egyptian pharaohs were considered to be part divine). And of course the climax of our tale comes when Esther finds the courage to “out” herself as a Jew to King Ahashverosh under perilous circumstances—for should the King find her uninvited presence in his throne room irksome (much less her surprising revelation), it could cost Esther her life!

Indeed, there would be no Megillat Esther (scroll of Esther) at all had Queen Vashti not spurned the King’s request that she provide lewd entertainment for his drunken guests. In this story, every major character save Haman appears to have his or her breaking point, beyond which principle outweighs material self-interest.

How appropriate (if ironic), then, that the story of Jewish women getting arrested at the Kotel for the crime of wearing tallit and praying aloud has resurfaced with new vigor in this season of Purim. Jewish women, practicing their faith as God calls them to, are once again being detained, fingerprinted, and charged with criminal activities by the Jewish government of Israel.

Israel, as we know, has its share of problems. And far be it from me to present any of you with a reason not to love Israel with all your heart, as I do—after all, we love our families, with all their problems. To be honest, it would be far too easy to take from this story a depressing lesson about sinat hinam—senseless hatred—among Jews. This is most definitely not why I’m sharing this story with you today.

Rather, I share it now because this week I read two pieces about the arrests of women at the wall that, explicitly or implicitly, connect these events with Purim in an instructive way, and offer inspiration as we, members of the gorgeously diverse tapestry that is the Jewish people, travel this rocky and even fractious road toward identity, self-determination, and ultimately, we pray (as we will celebrate one month from now with the festival of Pesach, Passover), to redemption.

First, on Wednesday, I encountered JordanaHorn’s Kveller post, “What’s Truly Holy About the Western Wall?” She had me from the first line, but she really caught me with her last paragraph:
On Friday night, let’s light the candles and think about that which is truly holy: the people of Israel, surviving years of persecution and praying according to different customs and traditions, but praying with devotion and love to the same God. I believe in a God who expects more from us.
Yes, let’s, I thought. For what is Purim if not a celebration of Jewish survival in exile, Jewish survival as a value above the letter of the law, and certainly above sectarianism.  As Horn points out, the stones of the Kotel are not holy. They are made holy by people, who have gathered near them over the millennia in service of “the same God.” And people are holy, not inherently, not all the time, but when we see and honor what connects us above what divides us. Take off the “masks”—the shifting externals of religious garb and ritual practice—and we just might (we might!) recognize in one another—feminists and traditionalists, progressive Jews and fundamentalists—a common love for justice and peace, and a desire for the wholeness and healing of all God’s creatures, and all of God’s creation. 

Perhaps it was some variety of this recognition that led Esther and Ahashverosh to their celebrated deeds, their respectively brave and compassionate choices that saved the Jewish people. Persian or Jew, we all seek out love, loyalty, and dignity. (Who knows? Perhaps even Ahashverosh found some dignity in the end!) And another lesson: perhaps only by shedding our pride—even, temporarily at least, letting go of dignity—by immersing ourselves in the masquerade of Purim, say, or by opening ourselves up to police detainment for the sake of our beliefs, only then can we see clearly what is worth fighting for and what isn’t, what is a mask, and what is holy, an integral, permanent and good part of ourselves.

On Thursday I saw another piece, this time at the Jerusalem Post online, written by a very young, impressively wise and articulate woman who was among those detained at the Kotel two weeks ago on Rosh Hodesh Adar. As a condition of her release, she was required to sign an agreement to stay away from the Kotel for 15 days, which would mean she could not join her sisters in reading Megilat Esther there, as they had planned. The author compared her plight to that of both Vashti and Esther, who refused to bow to conventional wisdom, to quietly settle for what was most personally expedient. Just as both Vashti and Esther resisted oppressive decrees, this young woman found the courage to return to the police station where she had been detained and request an exemption for Purim, to hear the megillah read by and with her sisters at the Kotel. “Miraculously,” she writes, “the police…granted it!”

As we celebrate Purim this year, let us think not only of the Women of the Wall, but of all people around the world, of every race, religion, and nation, who seek the strength and courage to strip away the masks—of fear, docility, prejudice—that lead to suffering and oppression. Let us celebrate the potential for holiness that connects all people. Let us celebrate our freedom to hear and recite the Megillah, the story of our deliverance from destruction. Let us celebrate together. Beneath the masks, we have so much in common.

For another Purim reflection on the Women of the Wall, which I read after I wrote this, check out Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz's sermon from this past Shabbat at her wonderful blog, This is What a Rabbi Looks Like.