Saturday, June 29, 2013

The 21st Century Daughters of Zelophchad

Pinchas is a parasha that is close to my heart—it is my birth parsha. There are so many ways it speaks to me personally. But this year, this week in particular, this parasha speaks to us all.
During the school year, I teach Torah to 7th graders. I constantly impress upon them what I call “the magic” of the Torah—that these ancient teachings, these stories, these precepts, have managed to speak to each generation with relevancy for its time. And this week is one of the moments when the Torah’s teaching come to life.
In this parasha, there is mention, by name, of nine women—nine  women. So often in the Torah we to have look between the lines to find the stories of women in a document written in a time of strong patriarchy, yet here, out front, nine are named, giving them a true presence in our heritage.
We have Cozbi bat Tzur, daughter of a Midianite chieftain, killed by Pinchas. Now, granted, she is certainly not one to be emulated but still, she gets a name, unlike Potiphar’s wife in the Joseph story or even Pharaoh’s daughter, who plucked Moshe from the water.
During the counting and the listing of the genealogies, we hear "ושם בת אשר שרח – v’shaim bat Asher, Sarach” – The name of Asher’s daughter was Sarach. It is a name we have heard only once before, in Genesis (46:17). Sarach is listed there as one of the 70 souls who go to Egypt with Jacob, once Joseph’s true identity is revealed. She is the only granddaughter of Jacob listed. We never learn anything else about her—yet the mention of her name must note something of importance. One story is that she is the one who told Jacob of Joseph’s survival, and lived long enough to tell Moshe where to find Joseph’s grave in Egypt so that his remains could be returned to the land of Israel, as he requested on his deathbed.
When counting the clans of the Levites, we hear for the first time, the names of Moshe’s parents—not just his father, Amram, but also his mother, Yocheved. Yocheved is not just described as a wife or a mother, but as a Bat Levi—given that honor in her own right. Miriam, his sister, is also named.
And then there are the daughters of Zelophchad, whom I have dubbed “Women with Chutzpah” It is the story of these women that comes to the forefront today, in this monumental week.
We first meet the five sisters, Machlah, Noa, Chauglah, Milcah, and Tirzah, in the list of genealogy (Num 26:33). There, we learn only that their father, Zelophchad, son of Hepher, son of Gilead, son of Machir, son of Manasseh son of Joseph—had these five daughters; he had no sons. But unlike Asher’s daughter Sarach, we do learn more about them. After all the tribes are counted and named, including the tribe of the Levites, their story is told.
Our story begins (Num 27) with these five daughters of Zelophchad, once again mentioned by name—Machlah, Noa, Chauglah, Milcah, and Tirzah, who come forward. They stand before Moshe, before Elazar HaCohen, before the Nese’im—the chieftains, and before the entire Ai-dah—the entire community. They stand at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting and state their case:
Our father died in the wilderness. He was not part of the rebellion of Korach. And he left no sons. למה—LAMA––WHY should his holding in the Land of Israel be lost because of this—give us a place among our tribe. Moshe brings their case to God.
And God says, the words of these women are right, you should give them their place in their tribe—transfer their father’s share of land to them. And so, God relays these new laws of succession for the Israelites. The first of these laws—if a man dies with no sons, his property will transfer to his daughter.
Before the daughters of Zelophchad spoke up, Jewish law dictated that only sons were in line to inherit from their father—any sisters were excluded from the inheritance. The daughters of Zelophchad stood up to this injustice. Some commentators note that in a time when so many of the Israelites were pining and whining to go back to Mitzriyim, to Egypt, these women were looking forward, wanting their portion of the Promised Land. Rashi notes that as the reason their genealogy, going back to Joseph, was mentioned once again at this time. Just as Joseph cherished the land, wanting his remains to rest there (Gen 50:22), these daughters of Zelphchad were imperative in their request for their portion –“תנה לנו אחזה בתוך אחי אבינו – t’nah lanu achuzah betoch achai avinu" - Give us a possession as part of our family inheritance.”(Num 27:4)
 Other commentators are impressed with the manner with which the daughters of Zelophchad
made their request. They did not rebel, like those who stood with Korach. Reish Lakish, a 3rd century Amorah, Talmudic rabbi, says that the women went through the channels Moshe set up for these types of disputes on the advice of his father-in-law Yitro—first they went to the chiefs of tens, who judged that since it was a case concerning inheritance, it needed to go to a higher authority. They then went to the chiefs of fifties, then hundreds, then thousands, then the chieftains. All gave the same reply—this needs a higher authority. When the daughters went to Elazar, he told them to go to Moshe.
So, the daughters of Zelophchad—Machlah, Noa, Chauglah, Milcah, and Tirzah, stood in front of the whole community—including all the chieftains, Elazar HaCohen, and Moshe, in a place for all to see, and stated their case. And Moshe, seeing the deference shown both by and to these women, realized that this case needed to be taken to his “Supreme Court”, God. God ruled in favor of the daughters of Zelophchad, and the law was changed. And while, as we will see next week, there was some modification of the law, the women were granted their inheritance in the land as stated in Joshua (17:3-6), “Ten portions fell to Manashe…because the women of Manashe received a heritage among his sons.
These righteous women saw the injustice they were subjected to, the denial of their inheritance, and knew the time had come to stand up and be counted. Imagine the courage and the chutzpah they had to have to question the patriarchal rulings of the time. A group of five women making a claim for all to see in a time of strong patriarchy. They stated their case with respect, and were treated with respect. They wished to honor their father and their heritage. They showed their desire to move forward into the land of Israel when others wished to go backwards. Their righteousness was rewarded with an implementation of a change from an unjust system of inheritance to one of justice. Aviva Zornberg, a pre-eminent Torah scholar of our time, teaches that this is the first instance of oral Torah – these women were responsible for setting Jewish law.

Fast forward thousands of years-------

Starting in 1989, a group of righteous women, soon dubbed the Women of the Wall, women who simply wish to respectfully and fully pray at the Kotel, the remaining Western Wall of the Temple, are harassed each time they go to pray. Harassed not just with words, but with chairs thrown at them. There is a timeline available on their website showing how they, like the daughters of Zelophchad, go through the system, saying LAMA—WHY can we not, rightfully, partake of our heritage. And while that struggle continues, they, like Machlah, Noa, Tirtzah, Milcah, & Chaglah, are bringing changes to the laws.
And then there’s Edie Windsor & Thea Spyer—two more “Women with Chutzpah” who literally danced together through life. These two women met in 1965, and fell in love. In 1967, Thea proposed to Edie, presenting her with a diamond brooch instead of a ring to avoid attracting attention. In 1975, when Thea was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, they modified their dancing—whirling on crutches, then a wheelchair—and remained committed to each other. In 2007, they were finally legally married in Canada, this time with a very public announcement. Thea died in 2009. And that beautiful, vibrant, loving 44 year relationship was treated like it never happened.
But Edie, in the name of Thea and their love, stood up like the daughters of Zelophchad, went through the system from one court to another, and this week, the Supreme Court of our land said, “כן—YES” this women is right, this law is wrong and it must be changed.
It is my bond with the daughters of Zelophchad, that makes this parasha my parasha, but we are all a part of their inheritance. They stood up for their rights and for equal justice. They did so with respect and with strength. As do Anat Hoffman and the Women of the Wall. As did Edie Windsor and her lawyer, Roberta Kaplan. And as did Wendy Davis and Leticia Van De Putte in the Texas statehouse this week, literally standing up for women’s rights and access to the health care they need. And as did Kris Perry and Sandy Stier who, along with Paul Katami, Jeffrey Zarrillo and their lawyers, fought and won the right for marriage equality in our state of California—and hopefully soon, throughout our country.
Rabbi Arthur Green teaches that each generation leaves a bit of their oil on the Torah as it passes through their fingers. What happened in this country this week will become some of that oil, bringing light and relevance to the story of Chaglah, Machlah, Noa, Milcah, and Tirtzah—the righteous daughters of Zelophchad—and pass that on to the next generation of  “Women—and Men—with Chutzpah.”

כן יהי רצון –  Ken y’hi ratzon – May it be so
Shabbat Shalom

Monday, April 29, 2013

Ed Feinstein on Abraham Joshua Heschel

היום ארבעה ושלשים יום שהם ארבעה שבועות וששה ימים בעמר
Today is thirty-four days, which is four weeks and six days of the omer
יסוד שבהוד
A day of foundation in a week of humility

(Yes, I know I skipped day 33--it was counted but not written. More on that another day :)

Thanks to Rabbi Noa Kushner, the guiding light of The Kitchen, a wonderful new Jewish community in San Francisco, this evening we were honored to have Rabbi Ed Feinstein teach on Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. This is a combination that cannot be beat. Ed Feinstein is an amazing teacher--engaging and entertaining, with the knack of bringing light into density, guiding us in.

I've read some Heschel--I don't think you can be a Jewish educator and not read The Sabbath. I even teach about him to the 7th & 8th graders in my classes. I show them the photo of Heschel on the Selma March in 1965 with Martin Luther King, Jr, about which Heschel said, "I felt my legs were praying." I talk about his description of Shabbat as a "Palace in Time." But like so many great philosophers, you really need a teacher to help unpack and understand their thoughts. I couldn't approach any understanding of Martin Buber's "I and Thou" until I studied it with Norman Fischer. I think now I have a chance to delve more deeply into Heschel writings having heard Ed Feinstein this evening.

I wish I could share tonight's teaching--but there's too much to process right now. I can say that it's nights like this that invigorate me. I get insights into Judaism that I can pass on to my students, hopefully giving them some inspiration. Tonight I got bits on prayer and religion that may help me answer some of the larger questions my students ask--why does religion matter; what is prayer about. I got an affirmation on the need for both kavannah and kevah in Jewish practice from yet another source. It's so great when I gain the language that helps me teach.

A master teacher sharing the thoughts and words of a master philosopher--no, it doesn't get much better than that.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Accidents will happen

היום שנים ושלשים יום שהם ארבעה שבועות וארבעה ימים בעמר

Today is thirty-two days, which is four weeks and four days of the omer
נצח שבהוד
A day of perseverance in a week of humility

I knocked over a glass of wine tonight on the table where I was also doing some Torah study. On the table was my new book, From God to Verse, which I wrote about the other day. I caught the spill early and little damage was done to the book. But it's red wine, and the stains on the edges will always remain.

On one hand, I'm bummed. It's a brand new book, some would say a sacred book, as it is a translation of theTorah. I hate that it is, in some ways, marred so early in its life. But on the other hand (I have 5 fingers :), it shows that the book is used--not stuck on a shelf for show. It lives where I live, and real life is not a neat experience.

I love books, but I will not revere them to extent that they become separate from my life. I shouldn't willfully harm them, but stuff happens. I would rather hold my books near and deal with the accidents that may occur, than feel the need to treat them so gingerly that I can only use them in pristine conditions. Those that are expensive and/or in fragile condition need special care--I won't eat or drink near them, nor take them to a beach. And I will certainly be careful around books that are not my own.

I like to buy books so I can treat them as my own. I underline many books for future reference, and some books will be around when accidents happen. But those marks will shown their importance in my life and in my thoughts. In some ways, they are badges of honor.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Invisible, Intangible

היום אחד ושלשים יום שהם ארבעה שבועות ושלשה ימים בעמר
Today is thirty-one days, which is four weeks and three days of the omer
תפארת שבהוד
A day of compassion in a week of humility

When words fail me, I turn to others. Ruth Brin is one of my go-to Jewish poets. I've used her poems in prayer services and as a way to transition from meditation. Here is one of my favorites:

Invisible, Intangible 
All the invisible things fill our days,
Music and love and laughter;
All the intangible things affect 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.

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Moonlight and Darkness -- either can lead to freedom

היום שלשים יום שהם ארבעה שבועות ושני ימים בעמר

Today is thirty days, which is four weeks and two days of the omer
גבורה שבהוד
A day of strength in a week of humility

This week's Torah parasha, Emor, is one of those that lists the biblical holidays. While studying it  with the bright full moon of Pesach Sheni shining, I was reminded that the moonlight must have been comforting for the Israelites as they left Egypt, guiding them through the dark of the night.

Last night in my class on resistance during the Shoah, the Holocaust, I showed a short film about the Jewish Partisans who lived in the forests of Eastern Europe and did all they could to sabotage the Nazi war effort. One of the partisans described the need for the cover of darkness. The moon was the enemy--the fog, the snowfall, the dark was your friend.

Different paths to liberation . . .

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Seder Redux

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

Today is a odd little mark in the Jewish sacred calendar - Pesah Sheni -- Second Chance Passover.  It's very specifically mentioned in the Torah that if you are "are defiled by a corpse or are on a long journey," while the first seder is going on, you celebrate exactly one month later.

I should ask one of my rabbi friends if there are accounts of anyone following this ritual. The only remnant of it I know is a minor change in the morning service (for those who care--no Tachanun). I always love the second-chance nature of this, as I've noted before here and here.

It also cements the importance of tribal memory. The Exodus story is the start of our birth story. No longer a large family--we are a nation. The period from Pesach to Shavuot to Sukkot defines us--Creation to Revelation to Redemption.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Torah in Rhyme

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

I have long felt that the Torah is one long epic poem. As someone who chants from the scrolls regularly, I am sensitive to the lyrical nature of the writings. So when I read somewhere--possibly from Rabbi Rachel Barenblat's blog, The Velveteen Rabbi, although I can't find the reference right now--that someone had translated the entire Torah into rhyme, I was intrigued, and ordered the book. It came today, and I am glad I followed my instinct.

This is not a book geared for children, although I can already see that there are times it is a bit Dr. Seuss-like. It's all there--the good, the bad, the ugly. Seth Brown has left nothing out. He explains in his introduction:
"So, there's this sacred text. This very large, very old, very sacred text. And I had the dual goals of making it as appealing as possible (for maximum enjoyment) while changing it as little as possible (for maximum sacredness). 
Now, either one of these things alone seems simple enough. To change it as little as possible, you just leave it as is, and read one of the fine standard translations already on the market. . . Or to make it as appealing as possible, you might cut out all the genealogies and legal codes, keep only the most action-packed stories, and make a movie out of it. 
To do both, thought, is a little trickier. If the Torah were a friend of mine (and at this point, we've spent enough time together that it's not too much of a stretch), I'd say, 'Hey Torah, put your best foot forward, but be yourself.' Because when you have a sacred text, it's not really kosher to go cutting out large parts of it just because you don't enjoy ark-building instructions as much as giant floods."

One thing I already like about the book is the summary, in verse as well, that he has for each chapter. I think this will be great to show my b'nei mitzvah students as they prepare to study their parshiot. While I don't expect them to write in rhyme, I think it's a good example of one way to give the context of the text in your own voice.

I won't give my opinion of Brown's treatment of the text and his translation until I have spent more time with the book. Looks like this may be my Shabbat companion for a while :)

Monday, April 22, 2013

Aviva Zornberg - Part 3

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

Last night I attended my third Aviva Zornberg event in two days. This one was in Berkeley at the Graduate Theological Seminary. Once again, I have to synthesize it myself before I will attempt to share the full teaching. I'll just give you some bits to "chew" on.

This teaching centered around Yakov, his wife Rachel, and his mother Rifka. The spark was two small pieces of Torah. The vow that Yakov made after his dream of the ladder - Bereshit 28:20-21 "And Jacob vowed a vow, saying: 'If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on, so that I come back to my father's house in peace." And one small piece of information that seems to stand alone - Bereshit 35:8 - "And Deborah, Rebekah's nurse died, and she was buried below Beth-el under the oak; and the name of it was called Allon-bacuth."

Rifka, the Torah tells us, loved Yakov and favored him over his brother, Esau. But she has her own identity issues, and those issues are carried out through her relationship with Yakov. Yakov has this special bond with his mother, but that is also complicated. He is not there when she dies, and is only able to mourn her through the death of her nurse, Deborah. She is buried at the place of his dream, at Beth-el. His is not as able to mourn is love, Rachel. She dies in childbirth and, feeling what is happening, wants to call her son "Ben-oni" - child of pain, child of mourning. But Yakov, in denial perhaps, calls his Benjamin - child of strength, child of long-life. Whose strength - whose long life.

There is much more, but I need to process first. I will not be able to reproduce the teaching, but I can find a way to take the learning and make it part of my Torah. And, as is our tradition, I will always give this teaching in the name of the teacher--the amazing Aviva Zornberg. And I will chew on this myself throughout the year. Then she will return to give me more food for thought.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Aviva Zornberg, Part 2

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

Still processing last night's Avivah Zornberg teaching on the spies--a bit easier than than the morning session because I have notes. There's no way I can give it any justice right now, but here are some bits . . .

There was a tie to the morning session, since there was an element of voice. It was in another Aviva Zornberg session some years ago that I got that Bamidbar/במדבר, in the wilderness - also has within it in the word for speak - debair/דבר. The wilderness is a place where the Israelites must learn to speak a new language--the language of free people, not slaves. The language of people looking forward to a new land, not the language of fear that stops us from moving ahead. And yet, we must be willing to hear both the fear and the freedom. The new generation is the extension of the older one--it's just that they can hear and acknowledge the hard stuff in the old language as well as the love the lives in the new.

I also loved the view that God would not let Moses into the land because God sees Moses wants to say "you see--I told you so--it IS a good land." But Moses doesn't get that he is the exception. He did not experience the same hardships that were put upon the Israelites. He could have a clearer vision than they could--he needed to appreciate the growth of the new generation, not play "I told you so."

And back to a play on the word "Bamidbar." Dr. Zornberg says that Bamidbar, the book of the wilderness, is also the book of "Bewilderments." It is a book of understanding, or, more accurately, misunderstandings of where the Israelites are in their place, in their faith, in their psyche. They need to go on the long route and then, when that is not enough, need to extend to the next generation who can confront both the tov/טוב - the good - and the rah/רע – the bad of what lies in front of us.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Aviva Zornberg 2013 - Part 1

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

This morning I was at a teaching given by Dr. Aviva Zornberg--the first of three I will attend this weekend. She is such an incredible scholar and teacher. Each session she takes us on a journey, often winding in many directions, and yet always gets us back to the point. I am always left with new perspectives on these ancient stories.

Since this session was an after kiddush program on Shabbat, I could not take notes. That meant that for the first time I would just sit back and soak in her teaching in the moment--not knowing what would stick. The topic was "Murmuring of the deep . . . " and centered on Moses' inability/unwillingness to be the spokesperson for the Israelites.

What does it mean to speak for people--to be their spokesperson and/or to be their advocate. What is it to "hear one's voice," or hear another's. What stays inside, what comes out, what is the sound. What does our speech have to do with what we know/what we teach/what we share.

I'm still mulling over this right now. Running through my mind are some of her closing words. That not understanding something is the first step to understanding. It means, at least, that you are taking it in, that you are hearing the words and voicing your thoughts. Once that dialogue is open, the connections will come.

Friday, April 19, 2013

A Shabbat that we all need . . .

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

Thankful that we can all have a Shabbat of peace.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Going for a Quiet Mind

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

Right now, I only have no words---or too many.
I'll just look forward
and lengthen my entry into Shabbat

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Never Again?

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

Last week, a young teacher at the synagogue school where I teach, found out that I was teaching a  course on the Holocaust and offered any assistance I might need. He's taught the Holocaust before, he said. I thanked him, said I would keep it in mind.

Today at school during our dinner time, the teachers were gathered at one table and we got on the subject of Holocaust literature, since another teacher is taking a class on the subject. The same teacher who offered me help last week said that he didn't like to read Elie Wiesel. I asked why. He explained that there's just too much emotion. He can deal with the history, but reading the personal story made him too uncomfortable.

This floors me. How can you teach Holocaust without emotion, without feeling "uncomfortable." I know that it is important to get my students to that place, albeit in a safe environment of support. I need them to feel what happened in order to understand what happened, and why it cannot happen again. It's hard enough to reach this generation about the importance of this time, these events, to us as Jews and as citizens of the world. Knowing there are these kinds of teachers who will just teach the facts without making the emotional connection that is needed to touch the hearts and souls of these kids worries and upsets me. How will they even get close to understanding how and why this happened and why we must work to fulfill the promise of "Never Again."

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Generational Mark

היום אחד ועשרים  יום שהם שלשה שבועות בעמר
Today is twenty-one days, which is three weeks of the omer
מלכות שבתפארת
A day of nobility in a week of compassion

I'm planning lessons for tomorrow evening's classes, but I feel I will also need to address what happened in Boston with my students. These are kids who, most likely, have extremely vague if any memories at all of what happened Sept 11, 2001. I'm sure they are aware of the day, have studied it in school, maybe were part of the 10-year commemoration. But this is the first incident of mass insecurity they have experienced in their lives.

In my social justice class, I am planning a discussion of labor issues, centering around the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. I'm wondering if seeing how the explosions effected Boston will give them a closer perspective of how that fire effected all of New York City.

In my Holocaust class, I'll be teaching about Kristallnacht and bystanders--some helped, some hindered, and some remained indifferent. I'm glad that I can use Boston as an example of "upstanders" - those who jump into the fray to help.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Rabbi Lew and Jackie Robinson

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

A tough day for our country--for the world. Why anyone wants to make such a huge statement that means lives will be lost is totally beyond my comprehension. Maybe I'll write more about this tomorrow, maybe not. But today, to keep some normality, the topic is baseball.

It was 66 years ago today that Jackie Robinson made his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers. All the major league players are wearing number 42 today in his honor. One of the best ways I know to pay homage to his memory is to share some words from a big fan--my teacher, Rabbi Alan Lew, z''l. Here is an excerpt from my favorite Rabbi Lew sermon, Yasher Koach,  given on Rosh Hashanah 5760/2000.

I have been a baseball fan all my life. The most vivid memory I have is my first visit to Ebbets Field in 1948. My Uncle Benny, my favorite uncle who died a few years later, took me. It was the day the Dodgers clinched the pennant that year, and after the game the crowds poured out onto the street outside the Dodger dressing room and waited for their heroes to come out. In those days, athletes used to wear sport coats with white shirts -- no ties, collars spread wide open -- and as long as I live, I will never forget the sight of Gil Hodges immense Adam's apple protruding out of the open neck of his white shirt. He was a god. 
Another sight I'll never forget; a short while later my father took me to my first night game, also at Ebbets Field. Coming into the park, I caught my first glimpse of that glistening green grass diamond bathed in the arclight. My heart still stops a little whenever I walk into a stadium and see that 
And, of course, in 1948, Jackie Robinson began the civil rights revolution by penetrating baseball, because both he and Branch Rickey seemed to understand that baseball was at the heart of the American psyche, and if America was going to change, it had to change here first. You know, Louis Finkelstein, the great chancellor, perhaps the greatest chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, had the same insight. He used to say, you can't be an American Rabbi unless you know baseball. 
And in fact, I learned about social justice and civil rights and racial prejudice, not in school, not in synagogue, but through baseball. 
Pee Wee Reese, the little colonel, died the other day. When Pee Wee Reese became the only player on the Dodgers to befriend Jackie Robinson, he also became my favorite player and he remained so until he retired. 
Most of the ballplayers then were from the south. Pee Wee Reese was from the south too. Louisville, Kentucky, to be precise. But when the other players got up a petition saying they wouldn't play with Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese refused to sign. And then one afternoon in Cincinnati, when the fans were taunting Robinson mercilessly, and even some of the players were joining in, Pee Wee Reese walked over and put his arm around Jackie Robinson and stood beside him. Later, Jackie Robinson said, I never felt alone on a baseball field after that. 
So When Jackie Robinson couldn't find a house to buy, I sent him a letter inviting him to come live in my neighborhood. He wrote me back. He said he was sorry that he couldn't live in my neighborhood, because he and his family had just purchased a house in Stamford, Connecticut. 
Baseball mirrors life in a subtle and deeply spiritual way. It has a deep aesthetic and we pour our souls into this mythic diamond and allow our deepest aspirations and conflicts to play out there. 

Zichron'hem l'vracha - the memories of both Rabbi Lew and Jackie Robinson are blessings to us today.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The pink elephant outside the window

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

One of my 6th grade students calls me "Teacher Marilyn." This puts a smile on my face. I may never be a rabbi, but I am a teacher--and isn't that a large part of a rabbi's role. I can only hope that my students remember something of what I teach them, and that something of these lessons stay with them for many years to come--even after my name fades.

I remember Rabbi Berger--a teacher I had in my after school Hebrew High School. He was a young Orthodox rabbi and, I would venture to say, Modern Orthodox before that specific term was coined. He taught us decidedly non-Orthodox teenagers with a depth that seems hard to imagine now. And now, some 40 years later, there is one class we had that still resonates with me. He must have tied it to some Jewish concepts, but that didn't make it to the memory banks. But the teaching remains.

We must have been having some sort of "What is reality" discussion. Please note, this is the late 1960s/early 1970s and that was what would now be called a trending topic :) First, he made us realize that if he said, "I see a pink elephant outside the window," we could not say that was not true. We could say that we didn't see a pink elephant outside the window, or even that there was no pink elephant outside the window--but we could not say that he did not see that pink elephant. Real or not, he was seeing it.

He then told us a more elaborate story. This involved going to Paris and getting lost looking for the entrance to the Louvre art museum. What if, he said, we finally found what we thought was the entrance, went in, saw the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo, and marveled at their artistry. After this experience, we go outside and find that, by mistake, we wondered into a movie set and what we saw were reproductions--not the real art. At that moment, our perceptions changed. But going back to the initial viewing---was that any less real?

I have held those stories for all these years. In the nuances of this omer day, they have given me a place of humility and compassion to hear the perceptions of others. And as I traverse this new path of Jewish education, it gives me a space in which to hear the thoughts of my young students. It lets me balance the need to bring them certain knowledge without stifling their own creativity.

I can only hope that some of the things I teach my students will stay with them for the long run. I hope I can instill in them an open way to view the world, where they can really hear what others are saying without judgement. Above all, I hope they can then bring that teaching to the generation that follows them - l'dor v'dor.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Kavannah and Kevah

היום אחד שמונה עשר יום שהם שני שבועות וארבעה ימים בעמר
Today is eighteen days, which is two weeks and four days of the omer
נצח שבתפארת
A day of perseverance in a week of compassion

I've been working with friends of mine, teaching them about the Saturday morning prayer service in particular as well as the larger topic of Jewish prayer. Their oldest son will become bar mitzvah in early June, and they had been feeling lost in the service. I really appreciate their wanting to feel a connection to the ritual of prayer, to be able to participate in this important life cycle event in the way it was intended and not just be about the party.

Whenever I prepare teachings such as this, I learn something in the process. This assignment pushed me to get the first volume of My People's Prayer Book, edited by Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman. This volume, The Sh'ma and it's Blessings, gives a good introduction to prayer in regard to both form and function. It was there that I found one way to explain the prayer experience that I hadn't thought of before.

Jewish ritual is driven by two concepts -- kavannah and kevah. Kavannah is the intention of prayer, something that comes directly from within without the filter of the words in the siddur, the prayer book. It comes from the word meaning "to direct" - your words, thoughts, emotions go directly from your soul out to God--whatever that means to you. Kevah, meaning a fixed, stable state, is exemplified by the siddur, the words on the pages, as well as the order and times of the specific prayers.

Prayer is the balance between kavannah and kevah - between the structure of the service and the words from the heart. The balance point constantly changes with the needs of the moment. Sometimes the kevah--the strict order and liturgical verses can be a barrier to what you need to express. Then kavannah takes over--you can listen to the chants, feel the support of community, yet express your own feelings in your own words. Then there are times when more grounding is needed, you're looking for guidance and meaning. The words and prayers are there, carefully chosen to bring you into a state of release, where you don't have to work to find words and you can converse with God in a way that brings comfort.

Kavannah and Kevah -- another cycle of Jewish ritual that brings openings into a sacred space.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Who thought this was okay?????

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

The news has brought me some new ways to teach about the Holocaust, as I wrote about last week in my post about the "Jew in a Box" in an exhibit at the Jewish Museum of Berlin. And then there are the posts that show you how and what not to teach, as I read in this article in Tablet magazine about a high school teacher whose students had to write an essay based on Nazi propaganda called, "Why Jews are Evil."

Although some could argue the point--and I'm sure will--I can see using a variation of that assignment in a class about the Holocaust to impress upon the students how much effect propaganda can have on a large propaganda. Especially when the people in power are extremely skilled in the use of propaganda and how to spread it, as the Nazi leadership certainly was. As I set the stage for the economic, political, and sociological factors that were in play during Hitler's rise to total power, my students need to see how pervasive propaganda can be. This exercise is something that could have taken place in a German classroom in the 1930s. And it would help convince those kids, as well as there families, that Jews were indeed evil and the cause of all their problems.

But that lesson would have to be carefully planned, executed, and given the correct context. The lesson that was done in the Albany, New York, classroom was far from that. According to an article in the Albany Times Union newspaper, the school superintendent said she understood the academic intent of the assignment — to make an argument based only on limited information at hand. She was quoted as saying "I don't believe there was malice or intent to cause any insensitivities to our families of Jewish faith." Her problem with the assignment was that it was worded in an offensive manner.

How can someone in education not see that giving this assignment could give students the impression that the information was based in truth. It can give students reasons to believe that Jews are evil--after all, they learned this in school. How could this teacher, any teacher, think this is okay?

One third of the students refused to do the assignment--what about the other two thirds. What did they learn?

In class this week, my students said they didn't believe this sort of propaganda could have the same effect today. Maybe I'll share this story with them and see what they think. It will give me another reason to give them as to why it is important to learn about this, to be aware of the damage the propaganda, once released into the world, can do. Even more than eighty years later.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Back with the Breath of Yoga

היום אחד ששה עשר יום שהם שני שבועות ושני ימים בעמר
Today is sixteen days, which is two weeks and two days of the omer
גבורה שבתפארת
A day of strength in a week of compassion

I don't know why I take time off from my yoga practice. It's not just the wonderful things it does with my body. There's such a positive effect on my mental state. I just feel better.

So, why have I had these periods of stoppage? Quite frankly, I don't know. But rather than spend the energy figuring that out, I'd rather approach each return like the first breath of meditation. That first breath is the best breath--your posture is firm yet relaxed; your mind is clear and present. Then, all too soon, you're back in thinking mode. When that happens, I tell my students, reset and go back to that first breath. If, in a period of meditation, you can string together a series of first breaths, you get the present focus you need.

Basking in a new first breath of yoga - hoping I can keep that beginner's mind.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Welcoming the New Moon of Iyar

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

Built into this practice is the realization that there will be days when the mind is blank. Rather than force the issue, I share this Ruth Brin poem, since tonight is the New Moon of Iyar.

The New Moon 
If God were the sun, the Israel might be
the moon,
her face reflecting His eternal light. 
Yes, Israel is like the moon, the moon
who waxes and wanes,
grows old, an then renews herself,
yet never leaves the skies. 
Faithfully, she reappears to walk the night,
on every room and tree and blade of grass 
Until the whole world turns to silver,
transformed from darkness to shimmering beauty. 
Yes, Israel, be like the moon,
renew your faith each generation. 
Even when the earth casts its shadow of
faithfully reflect the light of God; 
Pour over the whole world
the moonlight beauty of holiness.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Making a Difference

היום אחד ארבעה עשר יום שהם שני שבועות בעמר
Today is fourteen days, which is two weeks of the omer
מלכות שבגבורה
A day of nobility in a week of strength

The week of strength ends with strong connections in my Jewish world. Today I was part of a meeting about the Kitchen siddur-prayer book that we are creating. It was productive, creative and took place in the hour that was allotted. It's so exciting to be part of a process that will help those who participate in our services approach and interact with prayer. And how great to be part of a Jewish group that takes action, rather than just talk about what action to take.

I also got to talk with a friend I met this summer as part of the Jewish Women's Archive's Educator Institute. We both teach middle schoolers/teens in a synagogue after school setting. We both have a passion to reach these kids, give them a sense of what it means to be Jewish, how our Jewish identity influences how we see the world and how we, as Jews, are seen by the world. We both understand the importance of giving these kids a teaching environment that makes them think about these issues, not just teach them dogma. My friend saw my post on Jew in a Box and we talked about how to use it in class. It was great to collaborate with her, and we plan to do more of that to develop curriculum specific to supplementary synagogue schools.

Jewish connections from coast to coast that make a difference in all sorts of Jewish communities. A great way to end this second week of the omer.

Monday, April 08, 2013

To Goldie . . .

היום אחד שלשה עשר יום שהם שבוע אחד וששה ימים בעמר
Today is thirteen days, which is one week and six days of the omer
יסוד שבגבורה
A day of foundation in a week of strength

On Yom HaShoah 5665/2005, while I was not yet in the practice of blogging the omer, I did mark the day with a blogpost. I wrote about my friend Goldie Rassen, a Holocaust survivor who made it through different work camps. She didn't share much about those times, and it was only reading her obituary that I found out she had a husband and a daughter died in the Holocaust.

Goldie was, above all else, a teacher. She loved learning of all kinds, but especially Jewish subjects and most specially Hebrew. She loved teaching Hebrew, and continued to teach almost up to the time of her death. I think of her so much these days as I study Hebrew, learning the trope, the music, of the language, and concentrating on decoding the dikduk- the grammar.

I spent many Shabbatot davening, praying with Goldie at Beth Sholom. At first I sat behind her, but she then moved to sit behind me. She loved and appreciated my kavannah, my intention, in prayer, but the volume was a bit much for her. "Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses, our Teacher/Our Rabbi) can hear you, Marilyn" she told me, with a smile. I not only drove her to services, I also picked her up to go to all sorts of lectures and classes and Jewish events. And I am only one of many students who revered her.

And so, on this Yom HaShoah day, I honor my friend with a poem I wrote upon her death. I honor her as my friend and as my teacher. I will miss her always.

לגולדי  –  מורה שלי – חברה שלי
To Goldie - My Teacher - My Friend

אני זוכרת את הפנים שלך
I remember your face
אני זוכרת את הקול שלך
I remember your voice
אני זוכרת את הידיים שלך
I remember your hands
אני זוכרת שלמדתי איתך
I remember studying with you
אני זוכרת שדיברתי איתך
I remember speaking with you
אני זוכרת ששרתי איתך
I remember singing with you
אני זוכרת שהתפללתי איתך
I remember praying with you
את יושבת בלב שלי כל אזמן
You live in my heart forever
זכרונך לברכא לי
Your memory is a blessing to me

Sunday, April 07, 2013

We are One

היום אחד שנים עשר יום שהם שבוע אחד וחמשה ימים בעמר
Today is twelve days, which is one week and five days of the omer
הוד שבגבורה
A day of humility in a week of strength

Today and tomorrow there will be many tributes posted to the memory of those lost in the Shoah, the Catastrophe, the Holocaust. Yom HaShoah is a day to stand in remembrance of all those lives lost, and all the souls who will never be.

It is also the place in time when, once again, we are reminded that--like it or not--we are, as Jews, one people. I know there are many who would argue, and I'd probably agree with a lot of their points. But it's hard to ignore the historical cycles of our past that are mirrors of each other.

Last Sunday I alluded to the Jewish penchant for dividing into party lines based on theological and political lines. Assimilation into other cultures has been going on for centuries. Traditions flow in separate lines with the difference of geographic location. Each subsequent generation brings its own interpretation to ancient rituals.

But from the Exodus from Egypt through the Babylonian exile to the destruction of the Second Temple through the Crusades, the Inquisition, the programs and on to the Shoah, there has always been this tragic correction where we have been reminded that no matter where we go in time or place, we are all part of one entity - the Jewish people. We were a global community long before the internet age.

What we do with that identity--what does it mean to us in this generation, and to the next? That's a matter for discussion. Feel free to share your thoughts here. But however you feel, whichever way you look, the Shoah has to be part of the dialogue, for it is, forever forward, part of all of our stories, part of the Torah we all share. Something we will not, we can not ever forget.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Entering the stream on the words of Torah

היום אחד עשר יום שהם שבוע אחד וארבעה ימים בעמר
Today is eleven days, which is one week and four days of the omer
נצח שבגבורה
A day of perseverance in a week of strength

There is a power one feels when chanting Torah. The words and the tones resonate in and then cycle out. The exact comprehension is often not there for the listeners, yet the words and the tones resonate for them as well. We all get to enter the timeless stream of our people---connecting past, present, future. The covenant, the bond we have with God and with each other. Even for those who need to take God out of the equation, the ties remain strong. It is in that stream that we find the strength to persevere as a people.

Meditation before reading Torah
by Marge Piercy

We are the people of the word
and the breath of the word fills our minds with light.
We are the people of the word
and the breath of life sings through us
playing on the pipes of our bones
and the the strings of our sinews
an ancient song carved in the Laurentian granite
and new as a spring azure butterfly just drying her wings
in a moment's splash of sun.
We must live the word and make it real.

We are the people  of the book
and the letters march busy as ants
carrying the work of the ages through our minds.

We are the people of the book.
Through fire and mud and dust we have borne
our scrolls tenderly as a baby swaddled in a blanket,
traveling with our words sewn in our clothes
and carried on our backs.

Let us take up the scroll of Torah
and dance with it and touch it
and read it out, for the mind
touches the word and makes it light.
So does light enter us, and we shine.

Friday, April 05, 2013

Breathing into Shabbat

היום עשרה ימים שהם שבוע אחד ושלשה ימים בעמר
Today is ten days, which is one week and three days of the omer
תפארת שבגבורה
A day of compassion in a week of strength

I take a deep breath, preparing to enter Shabbat.
Time to join with community - release the week past
A refreshing pause - before we start again

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Thinking out of the box with "Jew in the box"

היום תשעה ימים  שהם שבוע אחד ושני ימים בעמר
Today is nine days, which is one week and two days of the omer
גבורה שבגבורה
A day of strength in a week of strength

Both Tablet and The Jewish Daily Forward carried a story today about the new exhibit at the Jewish Museum of Berlin, “The Whole Truth: Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Jews” Singled out in both articles is the last segment of the walk-through installation -- a Jewish man or woman in a plexiglass box whose role is to answer any questions the visitors ask about Jews. James Kirchick, the Tablet columnist, writes not only about the exhibit, but about his time spent in the box. Anne Hromadka, the Forward blogger, questions the exhibits whole approach.

When I read these articles, my mind jumped to the "Exotic Museum of an Extinct Race" that Hitler planned to create in the old Jewish quarter of Prague. The next thoughts centered on how I could use this exhibit and, specifically the "Jew in a box" piece in my classes. I'm teaching a course on the Shoah, the Holocaust, right now so this is naturally in the forefront of my mind. For that class I will weave the exhibit into the last class of the session, looking at what the Shoah means to us and the world now.

But I think this is something that can be used when I teach about Jewish identity. After all, the main thrust of the exhibit is, "what is a Jew?" It is very much about how others see Jews, and can be used as a reflection counterpoint to "what am I as a Jew?"

What these articles also spark in me is the ways I can use the exhibit to bring active learning to my students. Two have come to mind already. One is to set up groups to form their own "Jew in a box" exhibit. What questions would/should/could be asked; what would the answers be. How does it feel to be in/out of the box? Another would be to challenge the students to set up their own Jewish Museum--what would they include, how would they set up the exhibit.

There is so much discussion these days about the state of Jewish education--discussion that is sorely needed. We also need more than talk--we need action. I'm grateful to the growing internet resources in the Jewish educational world that allows me to create dynamic lesson plans that will, hopefully, give my students a sense and feeling of and a connection to their Jewish heritage.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

For the Last Time . . . for David . . .

היום שמונה ימים  שהם שבוע אחד ויום אחד בעמר
Today is eight days, which is one week and one day of the omer
חסד שבגבורה
A day of loving kindness in a week of strength

One week in, and writers block has already set in. When that happens, I look at the books around me for inspiration. Since various chumashim -- books that contain the 5 books of Moses, the Torah -- are always within arms length of my desk, I usually start there, looking at the reading for the week. This week's parashah is Shmini, which contains the story of the death of Nadav and Avihu, two of Aaron, the high priest's sons.

The circumstances surrounding their demise are sudden, confusing and to many, very upsetting. I do not want to go into that at this time. But what ever the reasons, their deaths are a painful loss to their family. I can feel that loss right now, since it's been less than a month that my dear friend, David Weiss, passed away very suddenly. I plan to share more about David when we mark sheloshim, the 30 days since his passing.

In the chumash that I chose to mine for inspiration, The Torah, A Women's Commentary, published by URJ Press and the Women of Reform Judaism, there is a section of poetry and personal writings connected to each parashah. In Shemini, I found this poem by Robin Fox, which expresses so well the aftermath of such a loss.

For the Last Time 
How do you know
when it's the last time?
The last time to ask
"How are you?
How was your day?"
The last time to say
"I love you
Good night . . . sweet dreams." 
You don't.
And so you must reach out
with love and compassion
at every opportunity
to show those who love you
that you care
you love
and need to be needed . . .
in a world where you suddenly find yourself
alone once again
in an achingly painful way
because someone you love
has left you behind
to seek your own paths
and truths
in an uncertain place. 
The only thing certain
is that you're not truly alone
because of those who do love you
and for that be thankful
and grateful
and feel blessed
that you were able to say
"Good night . . . I love you"
one last time.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

The Moveable Seder Plate

היום שבעה ימים  שהם שבוע אחד בעמר
Today is seven days, which is one week of the omer
מלכות שבחסד
A day of nobility in a week of loving kindness

Last night at the Food Justice Passover event, the room was transformed into a living seder plate with each traditional ritual object was represented by a Jewish group dedicated to supporting justice for all in the world.

Hazon and Urban Adamah brought light issue of hunger in our communities and the need of those along the poverty line to access to fresh, nutritious food.

American Jewish World Service and Fair Trade Judaica represented food justice on a global level, reminding us of the modern slavery and oppression that is often involved with food production.

New Israel Fund and Bend the Arc showed us ways to advocate for social justice in the world, how we can help create an environment where issues such as water rights and gender inequity can be resolved with Israelis and Palestinians working together.

And The Kitchen was there to make the case for why and how religion can matter while doing this important work.

After sampling everything "on the plate," we sat for our meal--a vegetarian delight. Each group prepared a text study dealing with their particular issue. There were two rounds of teachings, with each participant choosing which two they would like to attend.

I'm so glad to see the growing integration of Jewish study and social justice. I hear so many people bashing religion, viewing it as the source of so much strife in the world. While that may be true, I don't think it's necessarily the fault of religion per se, but of how it is being used or, more accurately, horribly misused. If more people can find lessons of justice in our ancient, sacred texts, they may also learn to find strength in the communities built around those texts. Even grappling with the difficult sections that seem to cause so much harm can open lines of communication with each other and discover interpretations that may bring those dark stories to light.

Monday, April 01, 2013

A Girl of Two Cities

היום ששה ימים בעמר
Today is six days of the omer
יסוד שבחסד
A day of foundation in a week of loving kindness

Today may be Passover, April's Fools, and the first full day of baseball, but for me, April 1st is the anniversary of the day I moved to San Francisco in 1986. I've lived in this city longer than I've lived in any other. My total New York years still outnumber those spent in California, although I will hit that tipping point in the not too distant future.

Even after 27 years in San Francisco, I'm still identified as a New Yorker. One of my 6th grade Sunday School students busted me on this the second time I taught the class--"Marilyn, are you from New York?" When I replied in the affirmative, he said, "I knew it--you sound just like my grandmother!" Okay, the grandmother reference gave me a jolt, but I do know what he means. While I'm not sure about having an accent, there's definitely an attitude, a very direct way of speaking that is an integral part of who I am.

I've tried different looks--even went platinum blond for a year or so. With that look, my family, including my mother, did not recognize me. My 90+ year old grandmother thought I looked very Californian. But as you may see in the photo to the right, my New York-ness still comes through.

I think of myself as a hybrid. I'll never shed my New York persona, nor do I want to. It's as much a part of me as my Ashkenazic Jewish soul. And the Californian part of me is pure San Franciscan, which brings its own set of chauvinistic characteristics. I would say that both places consider themselves food capitals, so I'm lucky to be able to claim them both.

So I stand with a foot on each coast, the sum somewhat greater than the whole. No matter which coast I'm associated with, I am definitely a city girl. In San Francisco that means I have acquired some keen parking skills, as demonstrated by the photo below. Yes, I maneuvered into that spot which as you can see, had little room to spare. And both front and back vehicles were still there when I returned. I will tell you that getting out was easier than getting in, but both were accomplished without too much back and forth :)

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Can't we all just get along - Easter Sunday Edition

היום חמשה ימים בעמר

Today is five days of the omer
הוד שבחסד
A day of humility in a week of loving kindness

I've started reading A Convenient Hatred: The History of Antisemitism, published by Facing History and Ourselves, an educational organization founded in the 1970s that is dedicated to "linking the past to the moral and ethical questions of our time through a rigorous examination of the root causes of antisemitism, racism, and other hatred." Facing History believes that "education is the key to combating bigotry and nurturing democracy." They have amazing resources for the classroom and work with educators to bring important discussions and teachings to their students.

Last fall I was part of one of their workshops, "Holocaust and Human Behavior." The history, structure, and insights I gained from this curriculum has been invaluable in developing the Shoah class I teach to middle-schoolers at Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo. Too many of my students have no relationship to the Holocaust at all, no idea why it is important to them--as Jews or even as citizens of the world. With the help of Facing History and their resources, I am able to place them in that time, both as Jews and as German citizens. I can bring to them an understanding of the grand scale of this tragedy and what it means to us as Jews today. It also makes a space to talk about what we can do to combat the discrimination that goes on today--in ways both small and large.

I also teach about antisemitism in my classes, and am always looking for different ways to reach my students. This book, and the week-long online workshop I participated in last week will help me do that. As I read, there are times the phrase, "the more things change, the more they remain the same" pops into my head.

One example, especially apropos on Easter Sunday, concerns the beginnings of Christianity. We are reminded that Jesus was Jew. In describing Jewish life in Jesus's time, we learn that "Jews at that time were deeply divided over issues of faith and practice." Sound familiar? Instead of Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Orthodox, Renewal, etc, they had the Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes. After Jesus's death, the book tells us, ". . . small groups of Jews met regularly to pray together and discuss his teachings. Among them were James and Peter, two of Jesus's disciples, or followers. They tried to share their understanding of their messiah with fellow Jews in synagogues and other gathering places." This brought a wry smile on my face as I could just imagine how well that was received.

I can accept that the belief that Jesus was the Messiah, the son of God, was never going to be accepted by the majority of Jews of any sect, making the break off of what was to become Christianity from Judaism was inevitable. But perhaps, in keeping with the sephirot we honor today, if both sides had more humility to see the good of each factions' teachings--those that include peace, love, honesty, compassion--there would be more loving-kindess between us all today.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Finding Common Ground in the Valley of Dry Bones

היום ארבעה ימים בעמר
Today is four days of the omer
נצח שבחסד
A day of perseverence in a week of loving kindness

Today on Shabbat Hol Hamoed Pesach--the Shabbat in the midst of Passover--the haftarah that is chanted is the "Dry Bones" story - Ezekiel 37:1 - 37:14. Rabbi Moshe Levin of Congregation Ner Tamid in San Francisco teaches that this haftarah would be better placed in the week between Yom HaShoah--Holocaust Remembrance Day, and Yom HaAtzmaut--Israel Independence Day. I very much agree with him. It is a story that gives me chills each time I read it, seeing an ancient prophesy that came to life. I wrote about this during the counting of the omer in 2007. That was when I first really read the story and saw the link to being lifted from the ashes of the Shoah, restored to life in a land that we can call our home.

Three years ago, on this same omer day, I found another layer to this story. I saw that redemption doesn't just happen, we need to hear the prophesies and find the ways and the leaders that will make this happen. Finding the right leadership in Israel right now seems even more urgent. I fear that if things do not move forward towards a two-state solution, there will be no land to call home.

This year, I add another layer of commentary. When I read this today, verse 9 popped out to me: "Then He said to me, "Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, O mortal! Say to the breath: Thus said Adonai/God: Come O breath, from the four winds, and breathe into these slain, that they may live again." Not only do we need to be open to hearing the prophesy, but we, as Jews, need to come together from our different places, find a way to join our breath, our ruach, our spirit--physically, philosophically, theologically--to be able to live in our home. We need to find the commonality we have as a people in order to keep the land we call our home.

Once again I say:  "כן יהי רצון – May it be so"

Friday, March 29, 2013

Practical + Spiritual = Survival

היום שלשים ימים בעמר
Today is three days of the omer
תפארת שבחסד
A day of compassion in a week of loving kindness

I see Jewish ritual practice as fluid, a conglomerate of intersecting layers. Some layers exist in space, others in time, and still others cut through both time and space. Then there are the layers within the layers. Some divisions in space occur in one room, some across the universe. Time can be a day, a week, a month, a year, or multiple years through the millennia.

Then there is the practical vs spiritual aspect of many rituals, which can be rooted in tradition yet can change with each generation. Sometimes what seems very practical in one era would feel obsolete in another. The rituals surrounding kosher food is one example that comes to mind. I've had people explain to me how the rules of kashrut work in ancient times to keep people healthy. For example, they tell me, the clay dishes used were very porous, so not mixing milk and meat on the same plates would lessen the chance of eating spoiled food.

Giving health reasons for practicing kashrut is fine, the famous medieval Jewish commentator--and doctor--Maimonides would agree with that. But that is not the only reason to take on this practice. In the Torah, the reason for keeping kosher is so that we can approach holiness. What does that mean? Time to go to another level.

Maybe it's a way to be mindful about all aspects of what you eat--where it comes from, how it's prepared, what goes into the cooking. Eating is a very physical reminder that we are connected to other parts of the planet and need to think about the effects our intake will have on the rest of the world. And maybe we need to be reminded that nourishment includes feeding our soul as well as our body.*

My point in all this is to appreciate this multi-level Jewish practice that our ancestors have given us. Instead of kashrut, I could have written about Shabbat and the need for rest or Pesach as a way of clearing out the stale. All good ideas on a practical level. But there are always other strata in which to experience those rituals. Some work better than others for different people in different cultures in different generations.

And I think that is one reason why Judaism still exists when other peoples have not. We may be a vast, diverse tribe, but a people who can weave together the practical with the spiritual--feeding body and soul--will survive.

*For some other thoughts on the why of kosher in this era - check out this article from and this article from The National Jewish Outreach Program.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Equal Rights for All

היום שני ימים בעמר
Today is two days of the omer
גבורה שבחסד
A day of strength in a week of loving kindness

In July 1997, Ken was in a motorcycle accident and was taken to San Francisco General. I was working in Cupertino that day, and hightailed it up to the city as soon as I got the word. I made what was normally a 40 minute trip in under 30 minutes. When I got to the hospital, it was difficult to get information on where or how he was. It felt a bit like being in a medical TV drama--except it was real.

At the time, we were married for almost 6 years. Even though our last names are different, no one had ever questioned our statement of marriage. I think the only time we were asked to show our marriage license was when we bought our house. That day was no exception. When I was having issues finding the right people who could get me to Ken, I used the word "wife" as I had never used it before. "I'm his wife.....I'm his wife......I'm his wife" kept coming out of my mouth as I was shuttled from one place and one person to another. "You can't go there!", I heard as I started down a corridor that someone had pointed to. "Yes I can, I'm his wife" I replied.

There was never any question of my support for equal rights -- but that day made the need very concrete for me. I was able to ask questions, get people to talk to me, find Ken and see him before he went into surgery on his fractured wrist--because I was his wife. I could state it over and over again and everyone believed me. But my friends in same-sex relationships--committed, loving relationships--do not have that privilege. They can be denied access to their loved one because they couldn't use the magic words---husband, wife--that would open those doors.

Hopefully, in a few months, in California and the rest of the country, that inequality will be rectified. 

כן יהי רצון – May it be so

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The cycle continues...the counting begins...

היום יום אחד בעמר
Today is the first day of the omer
חסד שבחסד
A day of loving kindness in a week of loving kindness

With all good intentions, I meant to have this wonderful introductory post all written and ready to post last night after coming home from seder and my first night of counting the omer. While I managed a tweet--a new element added to the ritual this year, I'm feeling a bit stuck and almost nervous to start the writing practice. But like the Jewish yearly holiday cycle, the time comes and the ritual begins, ready or not. And that, one could say, is the beauty of following the cycle--you learn the practice is in the doing...the rest will follow.

For those who are new to this practice, I recommend you read this article by Rabbi Jill Jacobs. It gives a good basic explanation of the ritual along with the nuts and bolts of how to perform it. It is a counting time of 49 days starting on the second day of Passover and leading to the 50th day, which is Shavuot. It is a biblical commandment which was then adapted into rabbinical Judaism.

The Kabbalists added a layer by taking the 7 Sephirot -- emanations, illuminations, attributes that connect God, the Transcendent, to humans. For a bit more on this in a dogma-free manner, read this article from David Cooper. Each day of the week is one sephirah; each week is a sephirah. In the course of 49 days we encounter every combination of a particular day in a particular week. It can serve on a conscious, guided meditation on life as we count from Pesach to Shavuot -- from liberation to revelation.

This will be the 7th year that I have added my own ritual to the practice. I pledge to write each day. What I write is up to me. There doesn't have to be a thread, although there are years I've tried that. Sometimes my theme matches the sephirot of the day, sometimes not. The writings certainly aren't always stellar--but that's not the point. There just needs to be an entry, a counting, some words to mark the day.

There are friends who come on this journey with me in one way or another. Since I post the count and a link each day on Facebook, for some it's a helpful reminder to continue their own count. Others check in the blog from time to time; others read each day--with a shout out of love to my dad, who is my most faithful reader.

This year I'm added a tweet each night with the count--although the writing will mostly take place the next day. If you'd like to get those tweets, you can find me at @mdivah  

So, welcome to Omer5773. And appreciate that we start, as always, on a day of double loving-kindness.