Monday, May 23, 2016

Testament of Freedom

היום שלשים יום שהם ארבעה שבועות ושני ימים בעמר
Today is thirty days--that is four weeks and two days--of the omer
גבורה שבהוד
A day of strength in a week of humility

When my own words won't come, I share the words of others.
Here is Ruth Brin's poem for this week's Torah parashah, Behar.


The people of America read
about the sabbatical year
and the year of the jubilee
as a testament of freedom.

In the beginning they engraved
the words of Leviticus on the Liberty Bell:
"Proclaim liberty throughout the land
unto all the inhabitants thereof"

Generations later, the slaves,
in hopes of their freedom,
sang "The year of the Jubilo"
and "Go down, Moses."

You made us to be free;
ou set the s park
in every uman heart.

Now help us fan the s park to flame,
to light our way,.
Now help us brak the chains,
tear down the walls.

Help us bring freedom at last
to all the world.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Chag Sameach!! Redux

היום תשעה ועשרים יום שהם ארבעה שבועות ויום אחד בעמר
Today is twenty-nine days--that is four weeks and one day--of the omer
חסד שבהוד
A day of loving kindness in a week of humility

As much as I appreciate the big occasions in the Jewish sacred calendar--the festivals and holidays, with the ritual that goes along with them--it's the marking of the small moments, the ones more buried in the practice that give insight into the practicalities of the lives of the ancient Hebrews, while still creating space for a teaching from a modern perspective.

Today is Pesach Sheni, a day for those unable to celebrate Passover at its proscribed time of the 15th of Nissan.
Adonai spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelite people, saying: When any of you who are defiled by a corpse or are on a long journey would offer a passover sacrifice to Adonai, they shall offer it in the second month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight. They shall eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. . . Numbers 9:9-11 
Commemorating our liberation from the slavery of Egypt is one of the most important rituals we have--so important that if something has stopped us from doing that at the proscribed time, we get a second chance. And not only do we need to stop to remember, but we are told that those who are with us are to share in the moment.
When a stranger who resides with you would offer a passover sacrifice to Adonai, he must offer it in accordance with the rules and rites of the passover sacrifice. There shall be one law for you, whether stranger or citizen of the country.                                           Numbers 9:14

This celebration is so important, so seminal to who we are and how we view the world, remembering that we were slaves, that we were freed. We need to remember the feeling of liberation and share it with others. There is no looking away from it, making sure we always have empathy for those who are enslaved, and raise our voices to help lead them to freedom.

And what a great excuse to have another seder :) Maybe one year I'll organize a seder sheni for anyone who missed the others. For now, I'll just have some matzah with butter, salt, and pepper--being able to enjoy the taste knowing I can go to bread any time I want :)

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Making the Sacred Calendar Count

היום שמונה ועשרים יום שהם ארבעה שבועות בעמר
Today is twenty-eight days--that is four weeks--of the omer
מלכות שבנצח
A day of leadership in a week of perseverance

Yes, another day missed...another opportunity to start again. I think a good way to do that is share the drash I gave at The Kitchen last night.

Shabbat Shalom

One of the things I enjoy about tutoring my b’nei mitzvah students are the side discussions I get to have. I will admit, sometimes those discussion have little to do with Torah—there is talk of sports, or shoes. Recently, in the midst of one of an exchange about books, it came to light that I had never read the Harry Potter books. “Well” my student said, “You always give me homework, Marilyn, I have homework to give YOU” And so now I am reading the books as she lends them to me, one by one. (With tears in my eyes, I just finished the fourth book, looking forward to the next.) Not only am I enjoying the writing and the characters and the arc of the stories, I’m seeing so many messages of ethical and social and justice and life lessons that I know I will return to, weaving them into my teaching as I continue to uncover the different layers of meaning that will, may I say “magically” come to light.

In Harry Potter’s world, he often has something in mind that needs to be done and the tools to lead him there, only to find that there was a something else calling him to go another way, which those same objects are able to guide him, albeit in a different manner than expected. That echoes the way I often deal with Torah—thinking I want to study or teach one part of the text, but something else becomes illuminated which turns out to be much more appropriate to the time and space that I’m in that particular moment.

That is what happened on the way to preparing this drash. Months ago, when I asked Noa if I could share a teaching on this week’s Torah Parashah, Emor—I had a very specific teaching in mind that I wanted to share, dealing with the proscribed necessary perfection of the priests who offer the sacrifices, and what that sometimes troubling section says to us in the context of the world today. It’s a good teaching and I hope, someday to give you that teaching---but that will not happen today.

Because as I went to gather my sources, my searches kept taking me to a different part of the parashah, and it soon became clear that was what I needed to talk about, and share. So as I go where some invisible force led me, you will all see why it was where I needed to go this evening.

Last week, in Kedoshim, which is the very center of the Torah, we learned much of the code that gives us a framework for living in community, how to treat each other and ourselves with compassion—which is a definition of being Kedoshim - living in holiness.

In this week’s parashah, we begin a turn to matters seemingly more external—of our relationship with the land and the seasons. One entire chapter is dedicated to laying out the Jewish calendar, when and how to celebrate the festivals of the year.

As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks pointed out in his commentary on Emor this week, there are five specific mentions of these festivals in the Torah. The first two come in Shemot, Exodus, within first groups of laws we are given as a people. Only the three main festivals are mentioned—Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot— and the emphasis is on the tie to the yearly agricultural cycle. This is a good introduction to these special, sacred times. It serves as an important, concrete connection for an uprooted people in need of some grounding.

That leaves three more accounts. Two of those three come as the Israelites are poised to go into the land. Towards the end of the book of Numbers, we get a detailed description of the rituals involved with the offerings for each of the festivals that will take place at the Temple when it is built. Here we get celebrations of the full sacred calendar—weekly, Shabbat; monthly, Rosh Chodesh, the new month; Pesach and Shavuot; “Yom Teruah,” Rosh Hashanah, a day of “Kipurim” of atonement; and Sukkot. These sacrifice based rituals bring a different kind of understanding of the festivals, with a focus on honoring the One who created this world of living.

Later on, in Deuteronomy, it’s Moses is pouring out his heart and soul to these people he has been leading for forty years, giving his last instructions, for they will now go on without him. It’s about celebrating the festivals as a people, as a society—gathering together at the Temple in Jerusalem, leaving no one out,

ובנך ובתך ועבדך ואמתך והלוי והגר והיתום והלמנה
“your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levites, the stranger, the fatherless, the widow”

No matter what gender or status in the world—it is important to maintain the connection to our people, including all who wish to join.

What separates this telling of our celebrations in Emor, in the book of Leviticus, in this book that talks about holiness, from the others is that this telling, as Rabbi Sacks says, is not in terms of the ritual offerings of the sacrifices which we hear about in Numbers, nor about the unifying, inclusive societal aspect of the gathering together—not that there’s anything wrong with either of those. But here we are reminded of the times of internal, spiritual “checking in” with ourselves that are built into our sacred calendar.

The times given here are not just in specific days and months, but described most often using the words “Mo’aid” and “Mikra Kodesh.”

The Mo’ed – is a specific time, a fixed time, but it means more than that. The Ohel Mo’ed, the tent of meeting, is the sacred place where Moses and Adonai meet—a personal meeting with God, with the Transcendent spirit. In the last line of the mystical poem that began our entrance into Kabbalat Shabbat, Yedid Nefesh, we sang “מחר אהוב כי בא מועד” “Hurry, loved one, the appointed time has come”—it’s an intimate time of meeting, like a lover’s tryst. When we enter into Shabbat, we leave the rest of the week behind and make time to meet with ourselves on a different level, connecting to an introspective world.

Mikra Kodesh, echoing the name of this book of holiness, Vayikra, “and he called” Mikra Kodesh, often translated as “sacred occasion,” is to be called to holiness, to be brought close, with affection, with a feeling of intimacy. Each of the occasions mentioned – Shabbat, Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot gives us the opportunity to spend time in that closeness, with ourselves and with others. The Mo’ed and the Mikra Kodesh combine to give us a fixed, holy, intimate moment—almost a stoppage of time, a kind of meditation, a presence that can only happen when we remove ourselves from everyday matters.

We live in secular time, in a material, physical world. The sacred Jewish calendar gives us a way to take off from that world, and help us gain a sense of our inner selves that is not always possible in the hustle and bustle of our lives. It is time we need but don’t always know how to access. The Torah is the instruction manual for how to make this happen.

There is one more important occasion given in this weeks Torah—one that lets us bring a piece of that spiritual intimacy into our everyday lives. That combines the agricultural, the ritual, the societal, and the spiritual into a period of the year. And that is……the counting of the omer.

We are instructed for “count for ourselves” the 49 days between Pesach and Shavuot. We count an omer – a measure of grain—for each of those days between Pesach—a commemoration of liberation and freedom; and Shavuot—the commemoration of the revelation of the Aseret Debrot, of the 10 Utterances, know as the 10 commandments.

We follow and maintain a connection to the earth as we acknowledge and track the early harvest of spring to the enjoyment of the first fruits of the harvest—taking the time to be thankful for what has been created, and a reminder to take care of what we have.

And each year, we count for ourselves, taking an omer, a measure of ourselves, taking a-count of where we are, in preparation for what lies ahead. We take the same journey of growth that our ancestors took as they went from the slavery of Egypt, Mitzrayim, that Narrow place—to the celebration of revelation, of how to live with ourselves, together, into a place we can call home.

We count as a people, each of our counting joining with all the others who count with us.

We continue in our lives, yet take a moment to pause and reflect each evening. We are thankful for the Kabbalistic mystics who gave us the intentions of chesed/loving-kindness, gevurah/strength, tiferet/compassion, netzakh/perseverance, hod/humility, yesod/foundation, and malchut/leadership/majesty, that we can use each day to help bring that intimate, spiritual closeness into each day.

I've been counting the omer for seventeen years, with varying degrees of engagement. Fourteen years ago, I counted while undergoing chemotherapy--my first infusion was on the first of Nissan; the final infusion was on the forty-ninth day of the omer. Instead of counting down the days, like a prisoner in a cell waiting for release, I was able to count up, using the Kabbalistic intentions to guide the way. I learned many things that year, not the least of which was that strength does not need to be characterized by a closed fist. You can show strength with an open palm when you need to ask for help.

And if some years, we can’t seem to find our measure; we can’t seem to find the connections, it all seems out of reach---well, that also brings in the beauty of the practice. Unlike Harry Potter, we don’t need wands or potions or spells -- for the cycle is always be there for us each year to tap into.

And brings me here, to this day, and this time to take a breath and continue the journey of this count—stopping to take a-count of where I am, right now, happy to share it with you. 

 So, let’s count….

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Connections in Torah & Prayer

היום ששה ועשרים יום שהם שלשה שבועות בחמשה ימים בעמר
Today is twenty-six days--that is three weeks and five days--of the omer
הוד שבנצח
A day of humility in a week of perseverance

An omer post from 2014 - still feeling these connections . . .

There is a saying attributed to Rabbi Louis Finkelstein, "When I pray, I speak to God. When I study Torah (the first 5 books of the Bible) God speaks to me." As someone who does both regularly, I am often asked about my relationship to God. My standard answer is, "Define God."

My reality is that I don't know how to define God. I like to say that God lives in the unknown. Lately, thanks to Rabbi Bradley Artson, I'm thinking that God lives in the connections we have--connections with others, with the planet, with ourselves.

I have been studying Torah regularly for more than 15 years, cycling through the same five books in one way or another. Each year I find not just new teachings, but sections of text I feel like I haven't seen before. That is the "magic" of any sacred writing, and why those texts written in ancient times still speak to people today. I am not so concerned about who authored those writings--some say God, some say people who were God-inspired, some say a combination of deep philosophers with some really good storytellers. I'm in the latter camp, but will respect others' beliefs as long as they respect mine. What's more important than the "who" of the books is the "what" that they have to offer. The teachings I receive from the words of the Torah through the myriad of lenses set out by commentators throughout the ages help me navigate the relationships that make up my life.
That is my version of God speaking to me.

In prayer, through song or words, I seek release from my overactive, wondering mind. The melodies cycle through not just my head but run through my being. I often stand, swaying, dancing in my place with the rhythms. The biblical Hebrew with the tunes from another time and place touch the seed within--the part of my DNA that connects me with my ancient tribe. Reading the liturgical psalms and poems, I get to enter that timeless stream where the past, present and future are one. Those words written so long ago engage me with thoughts of compassion, thankfulness, fullness, and peace. They serve as a reminder that while we may be walking on the edge with stability in question, taking a moment to breathe, letting go of extraneous thoughts can bring in the balance we need.
That is my version of speaking to God.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Midpoint, not Halftime

היום חמשה ועשרים יום שהם שלשה שבועות בארבעה ימים בעמר
Today is twenty-five days--that is three weeks and  four days--of the omer
נצח שבנצח
A day of perseverance in a week of perseverance

Today marks the halfway point of the count.
We've made it this far,
but the tedium will now start to set in.

The first year I counted on Facebook,
it was around this time that a friend commented:
"How far are you taking this?"

We don't get a halftime break -
it's in the continuation that practice deepens,
supported by this double perseverance day.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

New Blessing Words--Lost or Found in Translation

היום ארבעה ועשרים יום שהם שלשה שבועות ושלשה ימים בעמר
Today is twenty-four days--that is three weeks and  three days--of the omer
תפארת שבנצח
A day of compassion in a week of perseverance

In the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism's prayerbook, Sim Shalom, the formula for blessing,
. . . ברוִך אתה יי אלהינו מלך העולם אשר קדשנו במצותיו וצונו
Baruch atah Adonai elohainu melekh ha-olam asher kidshanu b'mitzvotav v'tzivanu . . . 

is translated as "Praised are You Adonai our God, who rules the universe, instilling in us the holiness of mitzvot by commanding us . . .

Whatever issues I have with the translations in this siddur, this prayerbook, this isn't one of them. It's certainly an improvement over the previous siddur, which read:

Praised are You, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who sanctified us with Your commandments and commanded us . . .

They are both literal translations, with the newer one working to deal with the issue of gender and hierarchy that are inherent in the Jewish prayer language that was written in a gendered language in a patriarchal society. I appreciate Adonai instead of Lord; who rules instead of King, instilling holiness instead of sanctifying. It definitely allows for a more inclusive prayer space.

This year, USCJ released a new siddur, Siddur Lev Shalem, It's based on the new Machzor, High Holiday prayerbook they released some years ago, Machzor Lev Shalem.

I haven't davened, prayed, with the new prayerbook yet, but in scanning through it, the translations I've seen are an improvement. Of course, there will always be those who are dissatisfied. And I have a feeling the new translation for blessings will be a target for that dissatisfaction--although I not from me. The new translation reads:

Barukh atath Adonai, our God, sovereign of time and space, who had provided us with a path to holiness through the observance of mitzvot and instructed us to . . .

I'm glad the "commandment" word(s) are gone--it has such an overbearing feel. I think the most controversial wording will be "time and space" instead of "universe." I once used that in a Haggadah, the booklet of the Passover seder, that I wrote, and one of the participants loudly complained, "That's not what it says!" I replied, "it does in my translation :)" I can only imagine what he and others, will think about this.

What's your take?

Monday, May 16, 2016

The Basketballer Rebbe

היום שלשה ועשרים יום שהם שלשה שבועות ושני ימים בעמר
Today is twenty-three days--that is three weeks and two days--of the omer
גבורה שבנצח
A day of strength in a week of perseverance

On this day of strength in perseverance, with the Warriors playing amazing basketball and Steph Curry is another stratosphere, it's hard not to miss Rabbi Lew and wish he could experience the resurgence of his team in this wonderfully huge way.

Rabbi Lew was a true and loyal fan, and understood the spiritual nature contained in that pursuit. Many think of him as a baseball fan, a Giant fan--and that was true. Truth be told, he was very judgmental when it came to what he perceived to be the National League's superiority over the American League, shown in his description of my A's as "that junior league team across the bay :) "

In the years that I was Program Director of Makor Or, I met with Rabbi Lew weekly and there was a certain amount of sports talk included in our discussions. I know it was basketball had his heart. He loved the Warriors, and was active on the Warrior's fan boards--his moniker, "the basketballer rebbe." He had the positive outlook at the start of every season that only a fanboy could manage for a team that just was not good. He  It would take him until February to admit that the team wasn't going anywhere that year. Last year and this would would have been the fulfillment of his dreams.

I can't help but smile as I channel his joy.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

It's not a lapse, it's an opportunity

היום שנים ועשרים יום שהם שלשה שבועות ויום אחד בעמר
Today is twenty-two days--that is three weeks and one day--of the omer
חסד שבנצח
A day of loving kindness in a week of perseverance

As we come to the end of this first day of the week of perseverance, a day of loving kindness, I am reminded one aspect of perseverance--to continue even when there is a lapse.

I didn't write a post for yesterday's omer day. Not even a place-holder, a "I don't know what to write but I can continue my practice by making a post." I simply didn't post. I counted--my "official" count is on Facebook, so anyone who is just looking here can check there. But I did not write, and that is what I have set for my omer practice.

Did I fail? Maybe--especially if I don't continue at all, which is something I have done in previous years. But I don't think of that as failure, since there is another year to pick up the practice.

Part of perseverance is taking in the lapses and folding them into the practice. They will happen. But this day of loving kindness gives me the opportunity to not just continue the practice but in some way, begin anew. 

Rabbi Lew would teach that the mind will often, if not always, wonder in meditation. Instead of seeing that as wrong, take the opportunity to take another first breath---and that first breath can be the most satisfying, and the strongest one that keeps you on the path.

Just keep stringing together those first breaths.......

Friday, May 13, 2016

A foundation of mindfulness

היום עשרים יום שהם שני שבועות וששה ימים בעמר
Today is twenty days--that is two weeks and six days--of the omer
יסוד שתפארת
A day of foundation in a week of compassion

Don't curse the deaf, or put a stumbling block before the blind,
be in awe of your God
I am Adonai

 -- Lev 19:14

This week we read Kedoshim, a part of the Torah that has many laws, many of which deal directly with how we live in this world with each other. The verse above is one that we read, one that I think we pass over with a "yeah, yeah, I know that."

But take another look, expand your thoughts from the physical manifestations of meaning.

There are many kinds of obstacles--spiritual, psychological, as well as physical. Blocks we put in front of others as well as blocks within ourselves.

And while the deaf may not hear the curses directed at them, words can fly in many directions, heard by many years. The much of the harm can be to the one spraying the curses.

The bottom line-----mindfulness is wonderful constant to have in your life.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

The blessing that is Aviva Zornberg

היום תשעה עשר יום שהם שני שבועות וחמשה ימים בעמר
Today is nineteen days--that is two weeks and five days--of the omer
הוד שתפארת
A day of humility in a week of compassion

As mentioned yesterday, I've spent time this week learning from one of the premier biblical scholars of our time, Dr. Aviva Zornberg. It was amazing to be lead through the journey of Moses' life, both within each of the four teaching sessions and on the path from session to session--from his birth to his death. There's so much to absorb, processing the meanings contained in the trajectory of Moses' growth within himself, his complicated relationship with the Israelite people, and his intimate, but sometimes difficult connection with God.

But as special as having this time with this incredible teacher was to also get a chance to hear a bit about her life and how she came to this calling. She had a religious upbringing in Scotland, the daughter of Holocaust survivors. Her father became her teacher from an early age, passing his knowledge and wisdom of Tanach. Aviva admitted that she might have benefitted from the fact that she had no brothers, something that is certainly our gain :) She said she teaches in his lecture style, which is how she is able to take us on these 45 minute journeys in Torah, weaving in so much content but never losing her way. 

I got to ask her if she ever took into account the voice of who wrote the various parts of the Tanach, or the layer that the Masorite scribes added to the writing as they cemented the pronunciations and patterns of the chant. She said no, neither of those factors concerned her. She looks to what the text speaks to her, looking at what is there, accepting its inspired sacredness.

Throughout these teachings with this small group, she gave us glimpses of her life. She noted that, feeling the intimacy of the moments. It was such a blessing to learn from and with her, and it was time I will cherish.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016


היום שמונה עשר יום שהם שני שבועות וארבעה ימים בעמר
Today is eighteen days--that is two weeks and four days--of the omer
נכח שתפארת
A day of perseverance in a week of compassion

It's the chai day of the omer--eighteen days, חי. Those letters that add up to 18 make up the word for life.

I spent this chai day holding fast to the etz chaim, the tree of life, the Torah with a day of learning from the amazing biblical scholar, Aviva Zornberg. There's so much to process, too much to write about at this point. I will say that this study of Moses and redemption that is the theme of these three days of learning has a sub thread on what it is to be heard, what it is we hear, what we need to hear, and how we listen.

There is much more, but that will be revealed in the days, or weeks, to come.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Self compassion

היום שבעה עשר יום שהם שני שבועות ושלשה ימים בעמר
Today is seventeen days--that is two weeks and three days--of the omer
תפארת שתפארת
A day of compassion in a week of compassion

On this day of double compassion I'm giving myself a break