Monday, July 19, 2010

The Preparation Begins. . .

Tisha B'Av can be a profound experience. We listen to the mournful chanting of Eicha, Lamentations. We grieve for the loss of our center in the commemoration of the destruction of the Temples in ancient Jerusalem. We break down as we take in so many of the calamities that our tribe, the Jewish people, have suffered.

Rabbi Lew, z''l, saw this day of breaking down as the start of the yearly path to the Days of Awe, the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. As the evening of the 9th of Av draws near, I share some of his teachings from his book This Is Real and You are Completely Unprepared"

"Tisha B'Av comes exactly seven weeks before Rosh Hashanah, beginning the process that culminates on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Tisha B'Av is the moment of turning, the moment when we turn away from denial and begin to face exile and alienation as they manifest themselves in our own lives -- in our alienation of estrangement from God, in our alienation from ourselves and from others. Teshuvah -- turning, repentance -- is the essential gesture of the High Holiday season. It is the gesture by which we seek to heal this alienation and to find at-one-ment: to connect with God, to reconcile with others, and to anchor ourselves in the ground of our actual circumstances, so that it is this reality that shapes our actions and not just the habitual, unconscious momentum of our lives."

"The time between Tisha B'Av and Yom Kippur, this great seven-week time of turning, is the time between the destruction of Jerusalem -- the crumbling of the walls of the Great Temple -- and our own moral and spiritual reconstruction. The year has been building itself up, and now it begins to let go -- the natural cycle of the cosmos, the rise and fall, the impermanence and the continuity, all express themselves i this turning. The walls come down and suddenly we can see, suddenly we recognize the nature of our estrangement from God, and this is the beginning of our reconciliation. We can see the image of the falling Temple -- the burning house -- that Tisha B'Av urges upon us so forcefully, precisely in this light."

"Tisha B'Av is the beginning of Teshuvah, the process of turning that we hope to complete on Yom Kippur, the process of returning to ourselves and to God. And the acknowledgment of the unresolved in our lives, as a people and as individuals, is the beginning of the sacred power the Days of Awe grant us -- to transform our lives in this moment when we feel the pull of both the waning moon and the setting sun; in this place, in this life, here and now."

To help anyone who will continue on the journey of Teshuvah, I recommend reading Rabbi Lew's book in these seven weeks. While we no longer have him with us in body, his spirit lives on in his teachings which remain as powerful as ever.

Zichrono L'vracha - His memory continues to be a blessing for us all.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Birthday Girl

Today is my 56th birthday.

Most of you who are reading this know that I am a birthday girl. As long as I've been conscious of the birthday ritual, I have celebrated with some sort of gusto. I used to say, "Lincoln has his day, Washington has his day, I have my day." Those poor guys have lost their individual days to President's Day, but I maintain mine. This year I bring back one tradition I have let lapse--the birthday message.

I enter this next year of my life with certain clarifications that have eluded me for too many years. I had a calling, but the path to the what and how has been foggy. Taking the plunge into teaching this year has cleared the way. There's still much work to be done with more adventures along the way, but that's the best part :) But I have a direction that goes inward and outward; lets me connect with others and feed my soul.

I'm also gaining some balance--something I've been struggling with for years. I feel myself breathing again, making space while setting boundaries. I am learning to release my anger. With the meditative, reflective month of Elul ahead, that work with continue.

I am mindful and grateful for the advantages I have in life. Sixteen years ago, in my 40th Birthday Message I wrote:

Life has certainly been anything but boring up to this point. Interesting things have happened to me, and I've made interesting things happen. I've gotten to a pretty good place without too much compromise. I'm lucky to live with a special person in my life whom I love, and who loves me. I have the love and support of friends and family.

All that still rings true.

The heavy mist that surrounded me in this past years brought a disconnect with many people in my life that I hold dear. As a birthday present to myself, I'm going to reach out and reconnect. I'm hoping some of you are reading this now. If so, I apologize for my long absence, but know that none of you ever left my heart.

So as I pass another marker on the journey of life, I thank you all for accompanying me along the way.



Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Completing the Cycle

היום תשעה וארבעים יום שהם שבעה שבועות בעמר
Today is the forty-ninth day, making seven weeks of the omer
מלכות שב מלכות

A day of majesty in a week of majesty

The seven week cycle is now complete. I have counted each of the 49 days, and noted each combination of the sephirot. Each day has a thought, a point of view, a story. I've taken the biblical ritual with the medieval kabbalistic layer and made it an expression of my practice.

The Torah reading for this coming Shabbat is Naso. It's a parasha that covers a lot of ground--the sotah, the nazarite, the priestly blessing. The parasha ends with the dedicating of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. We hear about each of the tribe's offerings--which are exactly the same. But the description is repeated for each tribe. Why would this be written in this manner? Couldn't the gifts been listed once, prefaced by "Each tribe gave . . ."?

One easy case to be made is to reference the oral transmission of our sacred texts. The more the words are chanted, the easier they are remembered. The emphasis the comes with the repetition also brings to the listener the enormity of the celebration.

I have my own midrash on this event. Each year--and on Hanukkah--when we read this, I get this image of the uniqueness of each tribal offering, not their sameness. The repetition tells me to image how one tribe brought the offerings with a song, another with a dance, another with a skit. They were presented on cloths of different colors and different patterns for each tribe.

And that is one way to approach a life of practice. We all have the same basic tenets of ethics of how to live together in this world. Taking on a commitment of spiritual practice is a fluid experience--you learn, you ingest, you accept, you adapt, you continue to learn. The best sort of practice is the one that grows with you.

I leave now for my final preparations to "stand at Sinai" -- to study and take in the Torah in commemoration of the time of it's first offerings. May my study be as sweet as the first fruits that we also celebrate. May we all find a way to respect ourselves, each other, all around us, and the world we live in and accept each uniqueness the contributes to the One.

חג שמכח
Chag Sameach

Monday, May 17, 2010

Shavuot - A Festival Ignored

היום שמנה וארבעים יום שהם ששה שבועות וששה ימים בעמר
Today is the forty-eighth day, making six weeks and six days of the omer
יסוד שב מלכות

A day of foundation in a week of majesty

Tablet Magazine - a daily Jewish e-magazine from Nextbook, Inc - posted an article today, "Field Study: Why the holiday of Shavuot is all but ignored across America." This essay looks into the factors that make this the least practiced of the three Pilgrimage holidays - the remaining to being Pesach and Sukkot.
In its earliest incarnation, Shavuot marked a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the sacrifice of the harvest’s first fruits and is one of a historical trio of harvest celebrations, along with Sukkot and Passover, known as the shalosh regalim. According to Paul Steinberg, a rabbi at the Conservative synagogue Valley Beth Shalom in Los Angeles and the author of a series of books on the Jewish holidays, rabbis in the Talmudic period needed to reinvent Shavuot after the Jews left Israel for the Diaspora and no longer traveled to Jerusalem with harvest offerings. So, through what Steinberg calls the use of “complicated mathematical formulas” that were debated for centuries, the sages associated Shavuot with the giving of the Torah. But that interpretive shift, says Steinberg, has not “captured the imagination of Jews in America or anywhere else.”
The article goes on to talk about the custom starting to catch on in more American cities--staying up all night in study sessions called tikkun leil Shavuot. I will be participating in one such event in Berkeley tomorrow night into morning.

One of the comments on that piece caught my eye. While there's a definite snark factor that makes me want to say, "back off Jack," There are points in there that hit home:
Almost all American Jews celebrate and commemorate Passover in some form or another but only the Orthodox by and large celebrate Shavuot.
Another strange American Jewish phenomenon is that while most observe Shabbat by making Kiddush, very few observe Havdala, the ceremony marking the end of Shabbat.
Why are these two Mitzvoth, Shavuot and Havdala, neglected by most
American Jews, and is there any connection between the two?
I believe there is a connection.
Passover celebrates freedom from slavery and exodus from Egypt.
Shavuot celebrates the giving and receiving of the Torah and the Jews commitment to serving HaShem and His Torah.
Friday night Kiddush represents the Sanctity and Holiness of Shabbat.
Havdala repesents the leaving of the sanctity and holiness of Shabbat and the return of the mundane week.
By only celebrating Passover and not Shavuot, the American Jew is celebrating Freedom, but neglecting to commit to serving serving HaShem and His Torah.
By observing Kiddush but neglecting Havdala the American Jew is stating that everything is Kodesh-HOLY- without any distinction between that which is truly holy and that which is actually mundane.
How typically American to try to have your cake and eat it at the same time!
There is something to be said about people preferring the warm and fuzzy liberation/holy stuff and checking out on the commitment to the practice. I don't condemn anyone over this, as the writer of the comment seems to express. Instead, I wish more people would realize the mindfulness that consistent spiritual practice can bring to their lives

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Preparation for Revelation

היום שבעה וארבעים יום שהם ששה שבועות וחמשה ימים בעמר
Today is the forty-seventh day, making six weeks and five days of the omer
הוד שב מלכות

A day of humility in a week of majesty

As Shavuot, the day commemorating נתן תורה - the giving of the Torah - draws near, I am feeling the need for inward contemplation. So instead of my words, I give you the description of the day three days away from the revelation - Exodus 19:1 - 12.

There are some interesting points for study if you so wish. There's the ". . . I bore you on eagles' wings" from verse 4. I noticed the setting of boundaries at the base of Sinai in verse 12 -- something I've never thought of before. And, of course much, much more......

1. In the third month of the children of Israel's departure from Egypt, on this day they arrived in the desert of Sinai.
א. בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁלִישִׁי לְצֵאת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם בַּיּוֹם הַזֶּה בָּאוּ מִדְבַּר סִינָי:
2. They journeyed from Rephidim, and they arrived in the desert of Sinai, and they encamped in the desert, and Israel encamped there opposite the mountain.
ב. וַיִּסְעוּ מֵרְפִידִים וַיָּבֹאוּ מִדְבַּר סִינַי וַיַּחֲנוּ בַּמִּדְבָּר וַיִּחַן שָׁם יִשְׂרָאֵל נֶגֶד הָהָר:
3. Moses ascended to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, "So shall you say to the house of Jacob and tell the sons of Israel,
ג. וּמֹשֶׁה עָלָה אֶל הָאֱ־לֹהִים וַיִּקְרָא אֵלָיו יְ־הֹוָ־ה מִן הָהָר לֵאמֹר כֹּה תֹאמַר לְבֵית יַעֲקֹב וְתַגֵּיד לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל:
4. You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and [how] I bore you on eagles' wings, and I brought you to Me.
ד. אַתֶּם רְאִיתֶם אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתִי לְמִצְרָיִם וָאֶשָּׂא אֶתְכֶם עַל כַּנְפֵי נְשָׁרִים וָאָבִא אֶתְכֶם אֵלָי:
5. And now, if you obey Me and keep My covenant, you shall be to Me a treasure out of all peoples, for Mine is the entire earth.
ה. וְעַתָּה אִם שָׁמוֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ בְּקֹלִי וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת בְּרִיתִי וִהְיִיתֶם לִי סְגֻלָּה מִכָּל הָעַמִּים כִּי לִי כָּל הָאָרֶץ:
6. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of princes and a holy nation.' These are the words that you shall speak to the children of Israel."
ו. וְאַתֶּם תִּהְיוּ לִי מַמְלֶכֶת כֹּהֲנִים וְגוֹי קָדוֹשׁ אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר תְּדַבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל:
7. Moses came and summoned the elders of Israel and placed before them all these words that the Lord had commanded him.
ז. וַיָּבֹא מֹשֶׁה וַיִּקְרָא לְזִקְנֵי הָעָם וַיָּשֶׂם לִפְנֵיהֶם אֵת כָּל הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה אֲשֶׁר צִוָּהוּ יְ־הֹוָ־ה:
8. And all the people replied in unison and said, "All that the Lord has spoken we shall do!" and Moses took the words of the people back to the Lord.
ח. וַיַּעֲנוּ כָל הָעָם יַחְדָּו וַיֹּאמְרוּ כֹּל אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר יְ־הֹוָ־ה נַעֲשֶׂה וַיָּשֶׁב מֹשֶׁה אֶת דִּבְרֵי הָעָם אֶל יְ־הֹוָ־ה:
9. And the Lord said to Moses, "Behold, I am coming to you in the thickness of the cloud, in order that the people hear when I speak to you, and they will also believe in you forever." And Moses relayed the words of the people to the Lord.
ט. וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הֹוָ־ה אֶל מֹשֶׁה הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי בָּא אֵלֶיךָ בְּעַב הֶעָנָן בַּעֲבוּר יִשְׁמַע הָעָם בְּדַבְּרִי עִמָּךְ וְגַם בְּךָ יַאֲמִינוּ לְעוֹלָם וַיַּגֵּד מֹשֶׁה אֶת דִּבְרֵי הָעָם אֶל יְ־הֹוָ־ה:
10. And the Lord said to Moses, "Go to the people and prepare them today and tomorrow, and they shall wash their garments.
י. וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הֹוָ־ה אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵךְ אֶל הָעָם וְקִדַּשְׁתָּם הַיּוֹם וּמָחָר וְכִבְּסוּ שִׂמְלֹתָם:
11. And they shall be prepared for the third day, for on the third day, the Lord will descend before the eyes of all the people upon Mount Sinai.
יא. וְהָיוּ נְכֹנִים לַיּוֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁי כִּי בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁלִשִׁי יֵרֵד יְ־הֹוָ־ה לְעֵינֵי כָל הָעָם עַל הַר סִינָי:
12. And you shall set boundaries for the people around, saying, Beware of ascending the mountain or touching its edge; whoever touches the mountain shall surely be put to death.'
יב. וְהִגְבַּלְתָּ אֶת הָעָם סָבִיב לֵאמֹר הִשָּׁמְרוּ לָכֶם עֲלוֹת בָּהָר וּנְגֹעַ בְּקָצֵהוּ כָּל הַנֹּגֵעַ בָּהָר מוֹת יוּמָת:

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Shabbat Minuchah - Rest

היום ששה וארבעים יום שהם ששה שבועות וארבעה ימים בעמר
Today is the forty-sixth day, making six weeks and four days of the omer
נצח שב מלכות

A day of perseverance in a week of majesty

It was Shabbat--and I rested......

Friday, May 14, 2010

Rosh Chodesh Sivan

היום חמשה וארבעים יום שהם ששה שבועות ושלשה ימים בעמר
Today is the forty-fifth day, making six weeks and three days of the omer
תפרת שב מלכות

A day of compassion in a week of majesty

Chodesh Tov! Today is the first of Sivan--six days to revelation.....whatever form that takes :)

I fulfilled the promise made in yesterday's post and dedicated my Rosh Chodesh Torah reading to Noa Roz and the Women of the Wall (WoW). Responding to a message from WoW posted on Facebook, I sent them the photo you see below so they can document the support coming to them from all over the world. I was glad to have my 90-year-old Russian friend Yitzchak in the photo with me. Sadly, because of circulation problems, he can no longer wear his tefillin. But he is proud and happy that I wear mine.

לדור ודור –– l'dor v'dor
from generation to generation
all genders included.

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Women of the Wall

היום ארבעה וארבעים יום שהם ששה שבועות ושני ימים בעמר
Today is the forty-fourth day, making six weeks and two days of the omer
גבורה שב מלכות

A day of strength in a week of majesty

Earlier in the omer period, on Yom HaAztma-ut, I wrote about my complicated emotions concerning the state of Israel. That post centered around the Israeli-Palestinian relations--or lack thereof due to those presently governing Israel. That issue is only one part of why, like Jay Michaelson, I find myself in a position where I'm losing my love for Israel.

Another major factor contributing to my angst is the power the Haradi, the ultra-orthodox, have over Jewish ritual in Israel. Because of their stronghold that is legitimized by the Israeli government, I am not free to practice Judaism in Israel as fully as I can in the United States. This is solely due to my gender.

My first visit to Israel was in 1971 with USY Pilgrimage on a Jewish teen tour. This was years before egalitarianism was a part of Conservative Jewish practice, and I had no thought to wearing a tallit. This was still the case in 1980 when I was there on my second visit as a tourist, While I would consider myself a feminist at that time, I was removed from most of my Jewish practice so again, the act of wearing a tallit wouldn't have entered into my mind.

Throughout the past twelve years, I've continually increased my commitment to Judaism and taken on so many rituals that were previously out of my reach--getting an aliyah, reading Torah, wearing tallit and tefillin. It only recently occurred to me that all of that is still out of my reach in most religious settings in Israel--most importantly, at the Kotel, the Western Wall.

This is difficult for me to fathom. For years now, when I imagined myself in Israel, I would see myself wrapped in tallit and tefillin, davening Shacharit at the Kotel. The travails of the Women of the Wall have shown me another story--a tale that tears my soul. Women are being arrested, detained, and assaulted for the crimes of donning tallit and tefillin, carrying a Torah, lifting their voices in prayer.

The assault that happened this week is extremely chilling, for the woman who was attacked could have been me:

MAY 13th -- Noa Raz, a Conservative Jew in her early thirties who lives and works in Tel Aviv, was physically assaulted early Tuesday morning by an ultra-Orthodox man at the Central Bus Station in Be’er Sheva for having the imprints of tefillin (phylacteries) lines visible on her arms.
She had woken up several hours earlier to pray and wrap tefillin, as is part of her daily routine. “I’m very pale, so the tefillin lines are still visible for hours afterward,” she said. While she was waiting for the bus to arrive, an ultra-Orthodox man in his forties stood next to her and stared at the lines on her arms. He asked her twice if the imprints were from tefillin. She ignored him at first, then admitted they were. At that point he grabbed her hand and began to kick and strangle her while screaming “women are an abomination.” She struggled, then broke free and ran to the bus which had just pulled into the station.
There were several bystanders present, though Noa Raz stated that the assault happened so quickly that none had time to react.
Raz arrived in Tel Aviv and sent out a message about the assault on Twitter. Dozens of people responded urged her to go to police to report what had happened. Raz contacted the police the following day, fearing that a similar incident would happen to another woman.
The Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) has been working with the Be’er Sheva Police and has insisted they treat Raz’s assault as the hate crime that it is. To this end, IRAC has demanded that the proper resources be allocated in the search for Raz’s attacker, that security camera tapes be reviewed, and that the Chief of Police for Israel’s Southern District be personally involved.
Anat Hoffman, Executive Director of IRAC, stated that the assault on Noa Raz for wrapping tefillin “should not be seen as an isolated incident, but as taking place within an atmosphere of growing violence toward and intimidation of women who seek to pray freely and equally. Too often these acts of violence are tolerated. The fact that this man thought it acceptable to attack a woman for performing a religious act in private is an example of the escalation of violence targeted against women and against religious pluralists in Israel. We at IRAC are pushing the Israeli police to take this investigation seriously.” She added, “Noa, a member of Women of the Wall, is expected to join us tomorrow for Rosh Chodesh Sivan.”

Tomorrow, I will dedicate my Rosh Chodesh Torah reading to this brave group of women who are standing up for the rights of all Jews to practice fully in the land of our ancestors.

כן יהי רצון
May it be so

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Into the Home Stretch

היום שלשה וארבעים יום שהם ששה שבועות ויום אחד בעמר
Today is the forty-third day, making six weeks and one day of the omer
חסד שב מלכות

A day of loving kindness in a week of majesty

One more week to go in the omer count. I do feel that this year, it's done its work. I'm not sure if it's in the marking of the day, taking in the sephirot, or writing the daily post--maybe all three. Or possibly there ar other forces that have nothing to do with the ritual have brought about this change in psyche.

I do see what lies ahead a bit clearer. I have a direction that will guide me along for now, aware that there will always be those forks in the road bringing the need for new decisions to be made. I appreciate this time in the Jewish sacred calendar that helps me process all the life decisions that need to be made. May I always be able to tap into that flow.

With all this talk about roads and forks and decisions, how can I not share one of my favorite poems, Robert Frost's The Road Not Taken.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth.

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same.

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

What does Sacred Space mean to you?

היום שני וארבעים יום שהם ששה שבועות בעמר
Today is the forty-second day, making six weeks of the omer
מלכות שב יסוד

A day of majesty in a week of foundation

On this last day of the sixth week of the omer I finish my first year of teaching at PTBE. I hope I was able to teach my students some Torah and inspire them to think about the spiritual concepts contained within. I certainly learned much from them this year, and will be evaluating what I did this year, looking for more ways to reach them. Some of that processing will happen on this blog--if anyone out there has some wisdom to share, I would appreciate the input.

In honor of this year's students, I will share a poem written today by one of the students in my Sacred Space class. I don't know that I could have come up with this when I was 11 or 12.....


a word
what it means
no one knows
a tree
a house
or any place at all
a breath of air
a beat of the heart
a death
a birth
is a state of mind
is an abstract

Monday, May 10, 2010

Losing a Practice

היום אחד וארבעים יום שהם חמשה שבועות וששה ימים בעמר
Today is the forty-first day, making five weeks and six days of the omer
יסוד שב יסוד

A day of foundation in a week of foundation

We didn't make minyan this morning. This is becoming a more frequent occurrence these days, closer to a weekly rather than a monthly event. More and more, I feel that within a couple of years we will not be able to sustain a daily morning minyan and need to move to a different, part-time schedule. I sincerely hope that I am proven wrong, for attending morning minyan has become a touchstone for me and for my practice.

As Leviticus is the book teaching us the practice, Bamidbar is the book that contains the lessons of bringing the practice into our lives. Participating in morning minyan is one way I am able to do that. I can't help but start my day with thankfulness and mindfulness--the poetry of the liturgy guides me along. The words don't always stick :), but they're there for support when I need them. Just as I am always able to support those who are saying kaddish, the mourners' prayer, for loved ones--those whose grief is still new; those who share cherished memories of friends and family long passed.

Starting your day at morning minyan is one of those hidden gems of Jewish practice. In some ways, it's like having a mini Shabbat each day. Your only obligation--be present. And you're always welcome for coffee and a snack afterwards :)

So to all those of the Jewish persuasion who are reading this, wherever you are--think about finding your local minyan, maybe check it out. You get to support those in your community, and you will be surprised at the support you will get in return.

Sunday, May 09, 2010


היום ארבעים יום שהם חמשה שבועות וחמשה יומים בעמר
Today is the fortieth day, making five weeks and five days of the omer
הוד שב יסוד

A day of humility in a week of foundation

Dallas Braden, pitcher for the Oakland A's, threw a perfect game today. The opposing team, the Tampa Bay Rays, are currently the best team in baseball. It was the 19th perfect game in major league history and the 2nd in team history. Jim "Catfish" Hunter pitched a perfect game 42-years earlier almost to the day--May 8th, 1968.

Dallas Braden has reached a milestone event for his career at the early age of 26. He's proven to have a brash personality, as evidenced by his recent feud with Alex Rodriguez. That's not necessarily a bad thing--if that brashness is tempered with "menchness" and backed up with talent. I wasn't sure if he had either. Watching his performance on the mound, his emotion with his grandmother, his appreciation for the support of his teamates, and his obvious love and honor for the game showed me both.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

A Leviticus Farewell

היום תשעה ושלשים יום שהם חמשה שבועות וארבעה יומים בעמר
Today is the thirty-ninth day, making five weeks and four days of the omer
נצח שב יסוד

A day of perseverance in a week of foundation

We just finished reading Leviticus for this year. Across the globe, many shul-going, Torah reading Jews breathe a sigh of relief. We're done with all the bloody details of the sacrifices, and all the lists of laws and rituals, many of which are steeped in an ancient culture very removed from our own. The only story we get is of Nadav and Avihu and how they are zapped by God when they offer אש זרה – strange fire – that was not requested--a troubling tale in and of itself. So we're all happy to move on with the Israelites, even if it is Bamidbar -- into the wilderness.

But I gained some insights into Torah study as we traveled through Leviticus this year. I began the book with these two concepts in mind: it's a book about practice and we need to look at the contents through different lenses--both the one of that ancient time and the one of our present era. I finish the book with a better appreciation of how the practice works and a way into deciphering the teachings that lie within the words.

And so while I look forward to the next leg of the Torah journey, I am grateful that I have found a way in to taking in this sacred text that can feel so removed from my life. There's still a lot of struggle ahead--I wouldn't have it any other way. It's the perseverance with the struggle that forms the foundation for learning.

חזק חזק ונתחזק
May we be strong, strong,
and strengthen each other

Friday, May 07, 2010

Shabbat is Rest

היום שמנה ושלשים יום שהם חמשה שבועות ושלשה יומים בעמר
Today is the thirty-eighth day, making five weeks and three days of the omer
תפרת שב יסוד

A day of compassion in a week of foundation

This week, in my 6th grade class on sacred space, we discussed Shabbat--what is it, what does it mean, what does it mean to them. (hmmm, sound familiar?) I asked them to write about Shabbat--how have they practiced it, what rituals did they observe, what can they do to bring more Shabbat into their lives.

As we enter into Shabbat, I will share one response--a wonderful example of how much I learn from my students.

Shabbat Shalom
To me, Shabbat is rest. It is living in the moment. This rule, this God-given law, is a gift. Like Buddha gave the people yoga, God gave us Shabbat. Because of Shabbat we have one day where we don't have to worry about money or school or social life or gossip or emotions. On Shabbat we can simply rest. We don't have to work. Never think of Shabbat as a restriction--Shabbat is a privilege. On Shabbat you can unplug your electronics. You can turn off your phones. You can silence the family, calm your pets, turnoff the lights, and find a sacred place to tell God how much you appreciate his gift, and simply enjoy the fact that you are simply there.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

היום שבעה ושלשים יום שהם חמשה שבועות ושני יומים בעמרToday is the thirty-seventh day, making five weeks and two days of the omerגבורה שב יסוד
A day of strength in a week of foundation

I'm watching the returns of the British election---a turning point moment for the country. Will the Conservatives get enough seats for a majority? Will it be a "hung" Parliament, with a coalition needed to form the government? At this moment, we still don't know.

But as interested as I am, that's not what I wish to comment on today. Instead, I want to share this article from The Forward written by Rabbi Amy Eilberg, the first woman to be ordained as a rabbi by the Jewish Theological Seminary, the rabbinical school of the Conservative movement. She reflects on the that moment, 25 years ago--what it meant then, what it means now. She acknowledges the challenges that still lie ahead as she pays homage to what has been accomplished:
Surely, many challenges remain. The so-called “stained-glass ceiling” remains firmly in place, although a handful of women have been called to lead large congregations as solo rabbis. The R.A.’s comprehensive 2004 study, “Gender Variation in the Careers of Conservative Rabbis,” demonstrated that women rabbis continue to suffer significant discrimination in the workplace, including lower pay, challenges to their authority and legitimacy, and the usual flow of disrespectful and foolish remarks.
Still, as I ponder the 25 years since my ordination at JTS, I am awed that we have collectively come as far as we have. For younger Conservative Jews, the denial of full equality to women is now inconceivable. Even the Orthodox world is actively wrestling with the question of women’s ordination.
Anniversaries invite sacred reflection. On this 25th anniversary of my ordination, I am deeply grateful for the joy and privilege of participating in this transformative time in Jewish history. My heart is drawn to the Shehecheyanu prayer, in which we thank God for giving us life and enabling us to reach this special moment.

I also say a Shehecheyanu in Rabbi Eilberg's honor, and in commemoration of reaching this anniversary. I am old enough to remember when ritual equality for women was unobtainable, far from inconceivable. I thank you, Rabbi Eilberg, for being one who cleared a path for those like me to follow.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Missing my teacher and his teachings

היום ששה ושלשים יום שהם חמשה שבועות ויום אכד בעמר
Today is the thirty-sixth day, making five weeks and one day of the omer
חסד שב יסוד

A day of loving kindness in a week of foundation

I'm missing Rabbi Lew these days. There are a couple of things I'd like to share with him, and one thing I'd like to ask.

It was Rabbi Lew who gave me a teaching of Jewish medieval sage, Don Isaac Abravanel, that has been formative for me. I have been doing research on Abravanel for a talk I'm giving at Netivot Shalom's after-kiddish program on May 15. I am fascinated learning how he navigated being a financier, a statesman, and a mystic all in one lifetime. The time and place he lived in--late 15th/early 16th century Portugal/Spain/Italy--leading the Jewish community that was expelled from Spain in 1492 by Ferdinand and Isabella. The book I'm reading, Don Isaac Abravanel: Statesman & Philosopher by Benzion Netanyahu is a thorough biography, but I with I could share my enthusiasm with Rabbi Lew, and I'm sure he would have some tidbits of knowledge that he could share with me.

I also would like to tell him about my teaching, and my participation in the LINK Educator Fellowship program at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. I had talked with him looking for my calling. As with his answer to finding my questions, he said that my calling will find me. I wish he was here to turn to for guidance as I walk towards what I hope will be a path found.

And I wish I could ask him how he came to be a Giants fan, as he grew up a Dodger fan. My friend Robert Rubin is one who decided to remain true to his roots, and wears his Dodger blue with pride--something not so easy in the Bay Area :) Rabbi Lew chose to change his allegiance. This was something I always meant to ask him but never got around to it. There's a story there---one I'll never know.

I will dedicate my talk on May 15 to Rabbi Lew. I will continue to spread the teachings he gave us. It's the best way I can honor his memory. But I will also always feel the loss.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Two Words

היום חמשה ושלשים יום שהם חמשה שבועות בעמר
Today is the thirty-fifth day, making five weeks of the omer
מלכות שבהוד

A day of majesty in a week of humility

A short post today...let's call it a postlet :)

The two words that are popping out to me these days as I daven are שמה -- Listen and אמת - True. There is much that I could say that I won't say now. I will say that I'm keeping those words in mind as I interact in the different spheres of my world. I'm hoping this practice will show me a way I can truly hear people, as well as being faithful to who I am.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Breathing Numbers

היום ארבעה ושלשים יום שהם ארבעה שבועות וששה ימים בעמר
Today is the thirty-fourth day, making four weeks and six days of the omer
יסוד שבהוד

A day of foundation in a week of humility

I spent the summer of 1971 in Israel with group of teens on USY Pilgrimage to Israel. Along with our American group leaders, we had counselors from Holland and Argentina. It was then that I learned that when a person counts, it will almost always be in his/her native tongue. Everywhere we went, when it came time for a head count we would hear the numbers in English, Dutch, and Spanish. It's one of those things that happens automatically--there's no thinking involved--probably why you revert back to your native language.

I thought about that today during my yoga class. We're trying to gain fluency with the numbers in my Hebrew class and my teacher suggested that we use Hebrew numbers as much as possible. I've been doing things like reading license plate numbers and prices in Hebrew. So when Susannah told us to hold each pose for eight breaths, I started to count them in Hebrew. It was not a good idea :)

I lost my focus on the pose, which meant I lost my focus on the present--an important element in yoga practice. I had to think too much--which number, which tense. It just took me out of the flow of the class. Luckily I realized early in the session that this wasn't going to work, was able to smile about it and let it go. It's hard enough sometimes to push the yoga frustration away--I didn't need to add another layer.

So I need to remember that I may never be able to count my breath in Hebrew--and maybe I am not meant to be able to do that. Then again, as when in yoga, a seemingly unreachable pose sometimes inexplicitly becomes one I do with ease--one day I might just find myself breathing the Hebrew numbers in my breath without another thought.

You never know.........

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Body and Soul are One

היום שלשה ושלשים יום שהם ארבעה שבועות וחמשה ימים בעמר
Today is the thirty-third day, making four weeks and five days of the omer
חוד שבהוד

A day of humility in a week of humility

I have a habit of grabbing whichever blank-enough notebook is nearest when needing notepaper. I use binders to organize notes, so if I need to make a dedicated volume, I just transfer those pages to their new home.

The notebook I'm presently using for my Hebrew class is the same notebook I used at a Jewish text study group in December, 2008. It does seem appropriate, as these notes contain a good amount of Hebrew. Part of studying Hebrew text is looking at the different meanings and nuances of the words. I need to see the word or phrase in question, not a transliteration. Along with learning to speak the language, I'm hoping to improve my writing and reading skills.

An advantage of keeping the same book for different teachings is that you get to revisit the earlier notes as you leaf through to the new ones. As I started my last bit of preparation for tonight's Hebrew class, my eyes fell on a phrase I wrote during a study of the Shema and it's surrounding blessings:
In Judaism, there's a relationship between the moral and the physical.

This followed notes on the word כבוד - kavod, defined as honor, glory, being present, heavy, liver--the heaviest organ of the body. The ancient sages described the liver as the seat of the soul. There are notes on light - Universal Light, Light of Zion, Light of Torah. There's some discourse on listening as an intent--listening to God through the Torah. And there's the physical and spiritual representation through head and heart.

This direct relationship between tangible and intangible brings the practice it's oneness. It is another way it meshes with my yoga practice, as they both stand on the tenet that mindfulness is a unity of body and soul. Together, they keep a place of Shalom-ness, of Whole-ness, of Peace as a part of my life.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

We should not forget

היום שני ושלשים יום שהם ארבעה שבועות וארבעה ימים בעמר
Today is the thirty-second day, making four weeks and four days of the omer
נצח שבהוד
A day of perseverance in a week of humility

A few months ago or so, I saw that someone from Pennsylvania had visited this blog when they searched "Edward Heiss Jewish." I noted it with curiosity. Edward Heiss was my uncle, he certainly was Jewish, but he died in January, 1945 when the plane on which he served as bombardier was shot down. I first wrote about him here five years ago, and will commemorate his yarhzeit later this month on Memorial Day, as I have in years past here, here and here. But I couldn't figure out why anyone outside of my family would have any interest in him. This week, that mystery was solved.

This past Thursday I received a letter from a Michael Moskow. He is an amateur historian who is interested in Jewish genealogy and Jewish military history. He found my uncle's name on a Missing Air Crew Report pertaining to his mission. Although there was no record of my uncle's religion or ethnic background, Michael had a hunch about him. His intuition was confirmed when he found my blog.

I spoke with Michael today. He would like copies of some the photos of my uncle, as well as other documents I have that pertain to my uncle's time in the Army. I am so appreciative of of his interest. My uncle's time on this earth was cut short. He had no chance to be a part of any lasting community. His mark in this world is faint. But he lived and he mattered--his memory lives in my dad and in me. And now his name will be marked and honored with other Jewish war veterans--men who should not be forgotten.

Zichrono L'vracha to all those who fought--those who lived and those who died
Their memories are a blessing to us all

Friday, April 30, 2010

The Perfection Within Us All

היום אחד ושלשים יום שהם ארבעה שבועות ושלשה ימים בעמר
Today is the thirty-first day, making four weeks and three days of the omer
תפארת שבהוד

A day of compassion in a week of humility

In this week Torah parsha, Emor - Lev 21:1 - 24:23 - we read that in order for one of the priestly tribe to be able to offer a sacrifice, they must be "perfect"

Adonai spoke further to Moses: speak to Aaron and say: No man of your offspring throughout the ages who has defect hall be qualified to offer the food of his God. No one at all who has a defect shall be qualified: no an who is blind, or lame, or has a limb too short or too long; no man who has a broken leg or a broken arm; or who is a hunchback, or a dwarf, or who has a growth in his eye, or who has a boil-scar, or scurvy , or crushed tested. no man among the offspring of Aaron the priest who has a defect shall e qualified to offer Adonai's gift; having a defect, he shall not be qualified to offer the food of his God. He may eat of the food of his God, of the most holy as well as of the holy; but he shall not enter behind the curtain or come near the altar, for he has a defect. he shall not [profane these paces sacred to Me, for I, Adonai, have sanctified them."
--Lev 21:16 - 23

Many who read this now have real problems with this passage. Why do those who offer the sacrifices have to be perfect? Are not we all perfect before God, before the Transcendent, perfect within ourselves--as long as work to be the best of ourselves. Does this not propagate the images blasted all around us of outward, societally excepted beauty as perfect? Are we not good enough to make these offerings?

I always teach that we need to look at the words of the Torah in the context of the culture they were written in to find the meaning that is meant to speak to us today. And about eight years ago I found a way to unlock the teachings of those words.

For in that time, in that society, the Israelites weren't constantly faced with a false sense of beauty everywhere the looked. They saw themselves and they saw those around them. I that time, having the "perfect" priest perform the sacrifices didn't mean they weren't good enough. I believe they could look at the "perfect" priest as the one who represents them to God. That priest symbolized, embodied who each of them were. So, instead of feeling inferior to that person, not "perfect" enough to offer the sacrifice--especially those who were even of the priestly class--they saw that "perfect " priest as themselves--they were that perfect person before God. Each one, whatever their exterior being, was, at that moment of offering--perfect.

It was true for the Israelites then, and with this interpretation, we see that it can be true for us now.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Morning Queries

היום שלשים יום שהם ארבעה שבועות ושני ימים בעמר
Today is the thirtieth day, making four weeks and two days of the omer
גבורה שבהוד

A day of strength in a week of humility

My favorite section of prayer in the Shacharit - morning - service is at the beginning. Starting with the morning blessings, I then check in with my relationship with myself, with others, with God. There's a Shema, the opportunity to study a little Talmud, and a chance to pay homage to the teachers in my life. Then there's a psalm of thanks, and the section ends with mourner's kaddish, taking me from my personal prayers into support for those around me. I've been saying these prayers for ten years, yet I still feel the power of their words, as strong as the first time of realization.

In my first one-on-one meeting with Rabbi Lew at the start of my first Makor Or practice period in 2001, he asked me if I had any questions. I had none. He then asked if I had any answers. No to that as well. He told me that my questions were out there, that they would find me. I felt a bit lost, not knowing how that would happen. But like the thoughts that come up in meditation, I let it go while still keeping it in my memory. And my meditation into minyan practice continued.

By that time, I had been going to minyan for about three months and was used to going with the flow of the service, even if it was too fast for me to concentrate on the meaning of the prayers. But there were those moments when certain words and phrases would catch my mind, bringing my davening momentum to a stop as I contemplate their meaning. Soon after that meeting with Rabbi Lew, I had one of those moments. Saying the prayers right after the litany of morning blessings, these words leapt out to me, seemingly for the first time:
What are we? What are our lives? What is our loving-kindness? What is our righteousness? What is our salvation? What is our strength? What is our might? What shall we say before You . . . ?
I had found my questions--or, I should say, they found me. And they find me each morning, helping me start each day with mindfulness.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Avivah Zornberg on Travail-ing and Laughing

היום תשעה ועשרים יום שהם ארבעה שבועות ויום אחד בעמר
Today is the twenty-ninth day, making four weeks and one day of the omer
חסד שבהוד

A day of loving kindness in a week of humility

On Monday evening I went to the JCCSF to hear a teaching from Dr. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, one of this generation's premier commentators on Jewish sacred texts. Her subject that night was the parsha Lech Lecha, centering on the traveling - travail-ing of Abraham and the laughter of Sarah. I'm not going to go into the specifics of her presentation--that would a) take too long and b) there's no way I could give it justice. But in looking at my notes from the evening, I've find I preserved some phrases, some short points, that I find myself drawn to both in terms of studying Lech Lecha and in terms of looking at one's life. Below I share some with you.
Abraham was constantly traveling - "travail-ing" - always on the move, his story is a traveler's history.

The role of Abraham was to teach and reveal the glory of God in the world. "Lech Lecha" is to go to yourself--Abraham responds to the challenge.

If you know where you're going, you're already there. So, you have to experience a letting go, a travail, a laughter on the journey, before you can arrive.

Abraham's influence diffuses into the world like perfume.

Abraham's journey is a journey of madness. He doesn't know where he's going--he's destabilized.

Laughter has an element of play - of seeing something wondrous.

Laughter reveals the limit of experience.

Laughter is at the heart of faith, when strange flows can begin.

Laughter of Sarah makes closed things open.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Sacred Space - Meditation

היום השמנה ועשרים יום שהם ארבעה שבועות בעמר
Today is the twenty-eighth day, making four weeks of the omer
מלחות שבנצח

A day of majesty in a week of perseverance

Right after I publish this post, I will leave to teach at PTBE. In my class on sacred space with the 6th graders, I am going to teach meditation. I'm sure some of the kids will find this odd, some may act up. But there are always a couple who hear the message, who get how it works and how it can help them in their lives. They will learn that they can stop and take a moment, breath, and focus. The best lesson I can teach.......

Before I go, I'll share the poem I will recite at the end of their meditation. It's one of my favorites from Ruth Brin entitled "Invisible, Intangible"

All the invisible things fill our days,
Music and love and laughter;
All the intangible things affects us,
Words and anger and prejudice.

You are invisible and intangible,
A God of moods and relationships,
Within us, you are the spirit of unity.
Beyond us, You are the guide to greatness.

We pray to You with an invisible, intangible prayer.
You answer with a flaming sunset
And the touch of a baby's cheek.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Beware the Hidden Propaganda

היום השבעה ועשרים יום שהם שלשה שבועות וששה ימים בעמר
Today is the twenty-seventh day, making three weeks and six days of the omer
יסוד שבנצח
A day of foundation in a week of perseverance

While doing some internet research on Don Isaac Abravanel, a 15th/16th century Jewish statesman and commentator for a talk I'm giving at Netivot Shalom on May 15, I came across a page titled "Edict Response by Isaac Abravanel." Having just read about Don Abravanel's efforts to reverse this edict by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in 1492 that led to the expulsion of Jews from Spain, I bookmarked this for later reading and eventually decided to print it out, thinking I might want to quote parts of it for my teaching.

Then I began to study the document. It just felt off, at odds what I had been reading about how Abravanel approached the King and Queen about the Edict. There were some sections highlighted with red text, and I couldn't understand why. And then I saw a note added by the editor of the website, which started with "Proving that everything that Ferdinand and Isabel did was quite correct! (Well, almost: they should have gone much further by considering all racial Jews as Jews in a legal sense. . .)"

As I went to see the home page of the root website, I was shocked to see a photo of Adolf Hitler. It is a white supremacist site, listing links to publications that spout their propaganda. I will not link the site, nor even name it. But seeing how easily I could have been pulled into their lies sent chills down my spine.

In May, 2004, I wrote a paper for my English 101 class at City College titled "Heeding the Visions of Huxley and McLuhan: Counteracting Racist Propaganda on the World Wide Web" Here is my opening thesis statement (note to any academics, sources available upon request :)
Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World Revisited in 1958 after witnessing the power of using modern technology to spread propaganda. He quotes Albert Speer: “Hitler’s dictatorship . . . was the first dictatorship in the present period of modern technical development, a dictatorship which made complete use of all technical means for the domination of its own country”. Marshall McLuhan published The Medium is the Massage in 1967 when the boom of the technology age was on the horizon. He saw how the images and the processes of the media could influence society in a subconscious manner—“Media, by altering the environment, evoke in us unique ratios of sense perceptions. The extension of any one sense alters the way we think and act—the way we perceive the world. When these things change, men change”. Although both these men died before the World Wide Web came into existence, they have much to teach us about the dangers this new technology can bring.

There are many examples of the positive influence of World Wide Web as a resource for information and communication. Access to medical databases and the most up-to-date information available gives health care providers the ability to better serve their patients . Non-profit organizations can use websites to recruit volunteers without having to spend much money. Families of soldiers stationed in Iraq can connect with their loved ones through video conferencing . But we cannot ignore the dark side of the use of this technology. The same aspects of the World Wide Web that serve to unite civilization are being used by hate groups to divide society. We need to give students an education in media literacy to counteract the ability for a dangerous few to greatly influence a generation with their hate propaganda.
I go on to discuss how both Huxley and McLuhan forewarn how easily propaganda can be spread with the development of communication technology with global reach. I cite some of the white supremicist websites that are cleverly disguised as educational sites--even one that seems to be honoring Reverend Martin Luther King, althought the agenda is quite the opposite. I also cite resources for media literacy that are available for teachers and students. I conclude with this:
It is essential to teach students how to think and train them to evaluate the knowledge they gain. There is also the need to show students how to separate the content from the packaging. The pervasiveness of computer technology into the fabric of modern life has influenced how information is received. Perceptions of what is true have become more important than the truth itself. Giving students media literacy skills will allow them to analyze the information they receive and teach them to maintain control of their thoughts rather than relinquishing that power to someone else. . .

Aldous Huxley realized the need for education to combat the spread of propaganda—“The effects of false and pernicious propaganda cannot be neutralized except by a thorough training in the art of analyzing its techniques and seeing through its sophistries”. Marshall McLuhan saw the importance of teaching students to recognize the form of the new media as well as its informational content—“The classroom is now in a vital struggle for survival with the immensely persuasive ‘outside’ world created by new informational media. Education must shift from instruction, from imposing of stencils, to discover—to probing and exploration and to the recognition of the language of forms”. Education in media literacy is critical to counteract the use of the World Wide Web to spread racist propaganda. We need to heed the voices from the past and use the resources of the present in order to ensure that the future will not be controlled by those who preach hatred.
If I were ever to rewrite this paper, I'd have to take out the emphasis on students needing that education in media literacy and make the point that we all need to be aware of the lies that are out there disguised as educational material. Let us all heed this lesson.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Standing in the Stream of Life

היום הששה ועשרים יום שהם שלשה שבועות וחמשה ימים בעמר
Today is the twenty-sixth day, making three weeks and five days of the omer
הוד שבנצח

A day of humility in a week of perseverance

At Beth Sholom, we ask anyone who comes to minyan to commemorate a yarhzeit--an anniversary of the passing of a loved one--if they would like to say a few words about the person they are remembering. It adds an extra level to the experience when the El Malai prayer is chanted--for the survivor sharing the memory and for those of us standing in support. At that moment, we all hold that person in our heart.

This morning, my friend Katherine shared the connection she felt between working with her son on the chicken coops they're building and the time her dad spent working with her on the Future Farmer of America projects of her youth. It was one way she could pass the love her father had for her on to her children. לדור ודור – L'dor v'dor - from generation to generation.

Another woman, Penny, was there to commemorate the yarhzeit of her husband. She told us they met in USY--the national youth organization of the Conservative Movement. They had 17 years together, were married for 11 years, and this was the 25th anniversary of his death. She shared this knowing we would understand the connections to her youth, to her Judaism. We could share the pain of her loss, no matter how long ago.

In these moments, as I place my hand on each shoulder and chant those ancient words, I feel humbled in the presence of enduring love and am honored to share in the stream of their lives.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Midpoint of the journey

היום חמשה ועשרים יום שהם שלשה שבועות וארבעה ימים בעמר
Today is the twenty-fifth day, making three weeks and four days of the omer
נצכ שבנצח
A day of perseverance in a week of perseverance

Today is the first step over the halfway point in the omer journey.

I wonder about the significance of this being a day of double נצח - Netzach---perseverance, endurance, determination. I think one of the lessons of counting the omer is to take on a commitment--you agree to count each day. It seems simple, but you still have to make the time, remember this small act in the midst of all the other things that fill your life. Mindfulness is not something that just happens--it takes work. But you can always look for help, and that's where the sephirot come into the process.

Here, as we move further away from Egypt, Mitzrayim, the narrow place and closer to Sinai and revelation, it's nice to have a Kabbalistic slap on the back, a hearty "Yasher Koach." We've persisted with determination and endured. We've laid the groundwork with loving kindness, strength, and compassion. Ahead we will experience humility, finish the foundation, and move into majesty as we prepare to fill ourselves with Torah.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Leyn Time

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

I've spent some time today practicing my Torah reading for tomorrow. I was asked to chant an aliyah by the Mirvish family, who will be celebrating the marriage of their son, Ezra. Not only is it an honor to be asked, but I know there will be many in the sanctuary who appreciate a good leyn.

There are many reasons why I love to leyn, why this ancient ritual calls to me. It connects me to the time when oral transmission was the only way our people could access this sacred text. The cantillation not only serves to draw people into the text but can add meaning and nuance to what is heard. I am part of the thread that goes from the Torah through me and weaves outward into the sanctuary, weaving us all together.

There are parts of the Torah I have chanted so many times, I know them by heart. There are times I feel like one of the characters at the end of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, those who memorize the books so that they will survive even though all the paper versions have been destroyed. I imagine there are enough of us in the world who could get together and recite the entire Torah.

Leyning is also a form of meditation. I need to be present, to be only in the present moment, looking at the parchment, seeing the black or brown letters--the white or cream space in between. If my mind wanders, I lose the thread, the cadence. When my mind drifts to other thoughts in meditation, I can always bring myself back to the breath; when I lose my concentration while leyning, I can always bring myself back to the chant.

I could go on....and on and on. But I'd rather share some beautiful thoughts on leyning by a kindred spirit - "Why I Leyn: A Manifesto" A good read with which to enter Shabbat.

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Hearing the Prophesy

היום שלשה ועשרים יום שהם שלשה שבועות ושני יומים בעמר
Today is the twenty-third day, making three weeks and two days of the omer
גבורה שבנצח

A day of strength in a week of perseverance

If you've read the previous post, you know I'm at a low ebb right now. So instead of creating a long or even a not-so-long tome, I'll commemorate Earth Day by sharing a song from one of the best musical satirists of our time, Tom Lehrer. I believe it's from a 1967 concert in Oslo.

I see artists like Tom Lehrer as prophets. Now, there's lots of talk of global warming and the consequences of the damage done to the planet in the name of technology and modernity. But fifty years ago, there were just a few voices.

Let's hope we can hear the message now better than we did then.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

One sip too many . . .

היום שנים ועשרים יום שהם שלשה שבועות ויום אחד בעמר
Yesterday was the twenty-second day, making three weeks and one day of the omer
חסד שבנצח
A day of loving kindness in a week of perseverance

The count goes on, but the posting got interrupted for a birthday celebration, which included one too many sips of a margarita :) But I was surrounded by good friends, I came home to a husband who just got me what I needed to deal with it all, and these things happen every once in a while, so no harm done.

Time now to go to minyan and read some Torah---and feel some compassion for Nadav and Avihu, Aaron's sons. It is said they drank too much, which is what got them into trouble, playing with that "strange fire" in a most sacred space. At least I had my lapse in a more appropriate time and place......

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Israel emotions

היום אחד ועשרים יום שהם שלשה שבועות בעמר
Today is the twenty-first day, making three weeks of the omer
מלכת שבתפארת
A day of majesty in a week of compassion

This day, when we commemorate the founding of the State of Israel, is no longer a day of happiness and pride for me. The existence of Israel as a Jewish state, as a homeland for a people who had no homeland for centuries, is of paramount importance to me. My Bat Mitzvah took place the week after the 6-day war, and I can still remember feeling the joy of that triumph. As a young teenager, I looked to Israel as a place I would need to live if George Wallace ever became president of the United States--I was not going to wait for him to declare me "the other." I could feel my ties to Israel when I spent 7 weeks there on my United Synagogue Youth Pilgrimage tour during the summer of 1971. I yearned to be in Israel during the Yom Kippur War, wanting to protect that place that was part of my heritage.

My feelings are much more complicated now. Yes, I want and need the State of Israel to exist, but I cannot agree with the path the present government of Israel is taking to secure that existence. I feel resentful that I was not taught the full story of the people who were living in Israel at the time of its birth as a modern nation. I can't understand why those in power in Israel don't see that their hard line stance will do nothing to clear the way towards peace and coexistence with the Palestinians. Right now there is one more generation growing up in an atmosphere of hatred--and that's an atmosphere that is a huge threat to Israel's survival.

It's so hard to find a place for to talk of these feelings. If I express them in some of my Jewish circles, I will be called a heretic--how dare I speak a word against anything Israeli. In other circles, I'm derided for supporting a country that practices apartheid. Neither description fits where I stand--which is decidedly on shaky ground.

This is an emotional issue for me, and I'm not sure I'm expressing myself well. And so I direct you to this article by Jay Michaelson from the September 24, 2009 issue of The Jewish Daily Forward, entitled "How I'm Losing My Love for Israel". He speaks for the angst that rages within me.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Breaking the Language Barrier

היום עשרים יום שהם שני שבועות וששה יומים בעמר
Today is the twentieth day, making two weeks and six days of the omer
יסוד שבתפארת

A day of foundation in a week of compassion

As I mentioned in yesterday's post, I have started taking Hebrew Classes with Anat Wolins at her Yad Moshe Adult School for Hebrew. While I have been studying, chanting, and davening in Hebrew for over ten years, the ability to speak in Modern conversational Hebrew has eluded me. I have taken classes, tried Ulpan immersion, and bought books and some software. I just can't get it to stick.

There is a mantra in my immediate family--we're just not good with languages. No one in my family speaks a second language. My father has some Yiddish; I can pull up some elementary French I learned in High School--that's about it.

I love the Hebrew language--it speaks to me, touches a place of ancient memory. It is through that connection that I am able to chant Torah in a way that reaches out to allow those following along, enabling them to hear the poetry of the words. One reason I want to learn to speak modern Hebrew is to be able to tap into the modern Jewish connections found in the poetry of Israel's Yehudi Amichai and Zelda. I also want to tap into the scholarship and literature that is part of my Jewish heritage. I want to be a better teacher of Jewish studies--and to do that, I need to know Hebrew.

And so, I step once more into the frey :) I know I have the intelligence to learn. I have the desire to learn. I hope I have the aptitude to learn. I can already write with the Hebrew alphabet--actually, my handwriting is better in Hebrew than in English, although not by much. I can easily read with the vowels, and my years chanting Torah help my ability to read without them.* I'm even sure I can input the vocabulary into my brain. It's the grammatical system that gives me a headache. There are so many gender, number, and tense combinations that apply to so many parts of the sentence. It's hard to imagine it coming to me naturally, to be able to speak effortlessly. But I have to believe it will happen.

When I started playing the guitar this summer, I felt I would never be able to approach playing an F chord, a chord that needs a finger on each of the six strings--you do the math:) Of course, the F chord is integral to so many of the songs I want to play, and, at the time, it felt so far away. But through the months of practice I've been able to find a way to make it work, albeit imperfectly. As long as I keep practicing, I can see that I will get better. That experience, combined with Anat's teaching style and experience, gives me hope that with perseverance, I will become a Hebrew speaker.

Imagine my joy when I combine the two, playing the guitar, singing Hebrew songs with complete comprehension.

כן יהי רצון
May it be so

*Hebrew words are written without vowels--both biblical and modern Hebrew. In this way, it's similar to Sanskrit - see this post.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Invitations to Learning

היום תשעה עשר יום שהם שני שבועות וחמשה יומים בעמרToday is the nineteenth day, making two weeks and five days of the omerהוד שבתפארת
A day of humility in a week of compassion

I covered the Bay Area--north, south, east west--traveling to many different events today. I drove northwest to Beth Sholom for minyan, then south to San Mateo for a teachers' meeting at PTBE, back up north to Beth Sholom again for a memorial service, then northeast to my Hebrew class in El Sobrante, and back southwest, coming home to San Francisco. Yes, a very full day encompassing lots of different emotions as well as distances.

At the teachers' meeting we discussed different ways to include the families of our students into the Jewish education sphere. Family support is key to having our students understand the role Judaism plays in their lives. Lisa Langer, a family education specialist with the Union for Reform Judaism was there to facilitate the meeting. In one exercise, we broke into groups to prioritize what types of Jewish family events would have the biggest impact on both students and their parents. Each group was given an envelope containing slips of paper that had the events written on them. While there was some differences between the groups in the middle-impact category, the top and bottom event was the same for all three groups. At the top--a synagogue run, family trip to Israel. On the bottom, parents dropping off their kids at religious school.

Lisa then asked us if we wondered why the latter event was even included. After all, that's kind of the crux of the issue--non-involvement of the parents, a "I drop them off and you take care of that for me" attitude that we are seemingly trying to combat. But Lisa made the point that what we look at as "just" dropping the kids off is more effort that many families make. We need to give credit to these parents for giving their children the opportunity to learn about their religion and heritage, even as we would wish they would be more involved in the process.

I appreciate gaining that perspective. Instead of viewing those parents with derision, we need to realize they are coming closer than those who avoid giving their children any Jewish education. At least they come up to the door---we need to open the door wide and find ways to invite them to come in.

A good lesson to get in this week of compassion.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Blessing the day . . .

היום שמונה עשר יום שהם שני שבועות וארבעה יומים בעמר
Today is the eighteenth day, making two weeks and four days of the omer
נצח שבתפארת

A day of perseverance in a week of compassion

The words needed to express my thoughts are not coming easily these days. But this practice is about writing and noting each day, irregardless of the origins of the words. Like using the siddur when in prayer, I can feel my thoughts reflected in the beautiful reflections of others.

On this Shabbat, I share with you a poem from Marge Piercy, "The art of blessing the day," the title poem of a collection containing "Poems with a Jewish Theme." As I have been spending time looking at my Jewish practice, this poem reminds me what the practice brings to my life.

This is the blessing for rain after drought:
Come down, wash the air so it shimmers,
a perfumed shawl of lavender chiffon.
Let the parched leaves suckle and swell.
Enter my skin, wash me for the little
chrysalis of sleep rocked in your plashing.
In the morning the word is peeled to shining.

This is the blessing for sun after long rain:
Now everything shakes itself free and rises.
The trees are bright as pushcart ices.
Every last lily opens its satin thighs.
The bees dance and roll in pollen
and the cardinal at the top of the pine
sings at full throttle, fountaining.

This is the blessing for a ripe peach:
This is luck made round. Frost can nip
the blossom, kill the bee. It can drop,
a hard green useless nut. Brown fungus,
the burrowing worm that coils in rot can
blemish it and wind crush it on the ground.
Yet this peach fills my mouth with juicy sun.

this is the blessing for the first garden tomato:
Those green boxes of tasteless acid the store
sells in January; those red things with the savor
of wet chalk, they mock your fragrant name.
How far and sweet you are weighing down my palm,
warm as the flank of a cow in the sun.
Your are the savor of summer in a thin red skin.

This is the blessing for a political victory:
Although I shall not forget that t hings
work in increments and epicycles and sometime
leaps that half the time fall back down,
let's not relinquish dancing while the music
fits into our hips and bounces our heels.
We must never forget, pleasure is real as pain.

The blessing for the return of a favorite cat,
the blessing for love returned, for friends'
return, for money received and unexpected,
the blessing for the rising of the bread,
the sun, the oppressed. I am not sentimental
about old men mumbling hte Hebrew by rote
with no more feeling that one says gesundheit.

But the discipline of blessings is to taste
each moment, the bitter, the sour, the sweet
and the salty, and be glad for what does not
hurt. The art is in compressing attention
to each little and big blossom of the tree
of life, to let the tongue sing each fruit,
its savor, its aroma, and its use.

Attention is love, what we must give
children, mothers, fathers, pets,
our friends, the news, the woes of others.
What we want to change we curse and then
pick up a tool. Bless whatever you can
with eyes and hands and tongue. If you
Can't bless it, get ready to make it new.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Beauty is . . .

היום שבעה עשר יום שהם שני שבועות ושלשה יומים בעמר
Today is the seventeenth day, making two weeks and three days of the omer
תפארת שבתפארת
A day of compassion in a week of compassion

For my translation of תפארת - Tiferet, the sephirot of the heart - I use the word compassion. The translation you will see most often is beauty. Because that word too often comes with the baggage of judgement, I choose not to use it. But for today, this day of beauty in a week of beauty, I bring you thoughts on beauty from Vanda Scaravelli, a transformative teacher of yoga who truly understood the integration of the practice into one's life. This excerpt is from her book, "Awakening The Spine," which contains her yoga teachings, paying homage to the unity of body, mind, and spirit that is yoga.
Beauty is not only in the spectacular glow of a sunset, in the delightful face of a child, in the incredible structure of a flower, in the joy of bright colors, in the shape of a sculpture, in the words of a poem, in the voice of a song, in the notes of a symphony. There is beauty also in the acknowledgement and expression of a feeling, in the logical process of thinking, in the discovery of a truth, in the realization of harmony, in the astonishment arising from observing the perfection with which a tree or a plant is put together. . .

Beauty brings us back that state of vulnerability, innocence and abandon in which, like a child, we are taken by the hand to disclose the kingdom of wonders and marvels thus putting us in touch with Nature where the miracle of existence is renewed each day.

We need beauty around us, Beauty is like a perfume impalpable but yet so very strong. Beauty is the essence of life. Its feeling pushes the artist to create, opens the heart to love, leads the brain to clarify, invites the mind to comprehend and brings the body to participate.

You find yourself in Beauty, unexpectedly absorbed by Beauty.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Food and Life

היום ששה עשר יום שהם שני שבועות ושני יומים בעמר
Today is the sixteenth day, making two weeks and two days of the omer
גבורא שבתפארת
A day of strength in a week of compassion

I am a fan of Ed Brown's cookbooks--especially the early recipes inspired by his service at Tassajara, the Zen Monastery. I learned to bake bread from The Tassajara Bread Book. Tassajara Cooking is one of my go-to books for the basics of cooking vegetables. The dishes in The Tassajara Recipe Book are wonderfully flavorful, and bring me back to the times I have stayed there.

I am also drawn to his writings, as he reflects on food and food preparation through the lens of his Zen practice. In his words you hear the philosophies that infuse his life. Today I share this introduction to the section "Planning Meals" from Tassajara Cooking. The wisdom contained therein can be applied to more that simply cooking.

Nothing left in the kitchen but few odds and ends you have to dig out of the refrigerator? Faced with unlimited choice in a market? Either way, you have to take what's there. At first you dread it. Later you come to enjoy it.
Respond to each thing, each vegetable, each situation. More and more, start with what is actually there instead of with some preconceived notion. This is how a cook's real creativity and confidence are developed. Learning to tolerate more, to appreciate more, we learn to cook the way we want to, and to cook for others also.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Deja vu all over again

היום חמשה עשר יום שהם שני שבועות ויום אחד בעמר
Today is the fifteenth day, making two weeks and one day of the omer
חסד שבתפארת
A day of loving kindness in a week of compassion

I'm feeling a sense of deja vu pertaining to my service to my Jewish community. I'm connecting the time now to the era in my life when I was at the threshold of my career as an editor, working at NBC in New York.

I see repeating patterns in the way I'm being treated and how I am reacting to that treatment. I understand how I need to work with what power I have--in the first case, as a union worker who can't be fired without VERY good cause; in the second, as a congregant who is a free agent and can choose to walk away. With the first experience, I learnt how to navigate a bureaucracy, and how to use memos to document my side of the issues. Those skills come in handy now, albeit on a smaller scale, with emails replacing memos.

I'm not going to go into details here--this is not the correct forum. I can report that one advantage of age is gaining perspective on the history of one's life and hopefully, taking in the lessons contained therein. But all of my years don't prevent my emotional reactions when buttons are pushed.

I will take the lesson of this day of loving kindness and compassion to realize that it is because I care about doing everything to the highest level, whether it's editing a news show or coordinating a religious service, that brings out this passion. And while I need to maintain a mindfulness of not hurting anyone with the barbs that strong emotion can bring, I can also use that passion to bolster my inner strength against those who wish to keep me from moving forward. That did not succeed thirty years ago, and it's not going to happen now.