Friday, May 16, 2014

Teachers of Patience

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

Patience is a virtue that I lack . . . then I look at my plants

My succulents, which looked so sparse when first planted in their box

My lemon tree, which took 3 years to bring that first fruit

Trying to retain the lessons they teach me . . . in spite of myself

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Lightening our global footprint

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

Thursday night is garbage night in my household. The bins need to be filled and put on the curb for pick up tomorrow morning. This may sound like a mundane task, something that goes on in every household. But in San Francisco, garbage can be complicated.

We've got three bins--a blue one for recycling; a green one for compost; and a black bin for anything else. Even that seems somewhat straightforward, but there's always a question about which containers can be recycled and which cannot; which ones can be put in compost and which cannot. There is a webpage that lists what goes where, but still, the questions remain. Which is why they even have to help you figure it out.

There are those who complain about this, probably the same people who complain about being charged for bags in stores. For me, it's a source of pride in my city. We don't just talk about preserving the ecology of our planet--we do something about it. In San Francisco we're working towards zero waste by 2020. And it's easy enough to carry your own bags, especially when it can help save our natural resources for the generations to come.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Happy Pesach Sheni!!

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

Chag Pesach Sheni Sameach -- Happy Second Passover!!

There are lots of important laws and instructions and rituals given to the Jewish people in the Torah. But there's just one where you literally get a do-over.

At the beginning of Bamidbar/Numbers, chapter 9, we read:
1 The Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, on the first new moon of the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, saying: 2 Let the Israelite people offer the passover sacrifice at its set time: 3 you shall offer it on the fourteenth day of this month, at twilight, at its set time; you shall offer it in accordance with all its rules and rites. 4 Moses instructed the Israelites to offer the passover sacrifice; 5 and they offered the passover sacrifice in the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight, in the wilderness of Sinai. Just as the Lord had commanded Moses, so the Israelites did. 6 But there were some men who were unclean by reason of a corpse and could not offer the passover sacrifice on that day. Appearing that same day before Moses and Aaron, 7 those men said to them, "Unclean though we are by reason of a corpse, why must we be debarred from presenting the Lord's offering at its set time with the rest of the Israelites?" 8 Moses said to them, "Stand by, and let me hear what instructions the Lord gives about you." 9 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 10 Speak to the Israelite people, saying: When any of you or of your posterity who are defiled by a corpse or are on a long journey would offer a passover sacrifice to the Lord, 11 they shall offer it in the second month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight. They shall eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs, 12 and they shall not leave any of it over until morning. They shall not break a bone of it. They shall offer it in strict accord with the law of the passover sacrifice. 13 But if a man who is clean and not on a journey refrains from offering the passover sacrifice, that person shall be cut off from his kin, for he did not present the Lord's offering at its set time; that man shall bear his guilt. 14 And when a stranger who resides with you would offer a passover sacrifice to the Lord, he must offer it in accordance with the rules and rites of the passover sacrifice. There shall be one law for you, whether stranger or citizen of the country.
I love this sanctioned second chance at a seder, given to those who are not able to participate at the set time. It reminds us of the importance of this ritual of storytelling and remembrance of freedom and liberation. It reminds us that all people, not just our tribe, can be a part of this commemoration. 

And for those who seem to think there is something wrong when families have their sederim at times other than the first two nights of Pesach---please let that go. You can keep and honor the rituals as prescribed in the Torah. But there is also an importance to have the story told throughout the generations, even if it's at a separate time. That is what will help keep this story of freedom and liberation alive throughout the generations to come.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014


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

Just a place holder, since no writing is happening on this day.

Not very noble or persevering . . .

Monday, May 12, 2014

Looking at Kaddish

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

On this day of foundation I take a liturgy class--one of many that I have taken with Rabbi Stuart Kelman. This one was on the various Kaddishes that are said in our prayer services, with much time spent on the Mourners' Kaddish, the prayer said on behalf of a loved one who has died. As often is the case with prayers, the customs go back so far that often their origins are obscured, But because they have been in existence for so many centuries, they are looked at as "law."

The codification of our observances is what unites us as Jews, gives us a tribal connection in this global society. But we need to remember that they are not set in stone. We need to learn what part they play in our lives, how they work, and even look at why they work...or don't. While the connection of tradition is important, keeps us in that stream that has run through the ages, we also need to revisit the customs, and renew their meanings so they can continue to to speak to us today.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

In the flow of the language

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

As I continue my daily blog writing for this year's omer practice, I also have to find time each week to write in Hebrew. I have written some posts of some of my trials, tribulations--and even a few triumphs as I continue to work on proficiency in this language that I love. (You can find them by clicking on "Hebrew" in the categories listed in the sidebar.) This year, I can see my relationship with Hebrew represented in this day of humility and perseverance.

Three years ago, I used the day of compassion and strength to write about my Hebrew studies. I ended that post with "I have the strength--and the smarts--to learn Hebrew. I need to add in compassion, give myself the time and space to let the knowledge settle in." Although there have been ups and downs, I do think that has taken place and I've moved forward in my Hebrew comprehension. When I study Torah, I can begin to uncover new meanings by looking at the grammatical structure of the verses and for a Torah geek like me, that's pretty cool.

Being more aware of the flow of the language also makes me a better Torah reader and service leader. People can hear the particular cadence and feel a connection to the writings. Part of the responsibility of a prayer leader is to bring people along with you, help them experience the letting go that prayer can bring. Having an understanding of the language helps me convey the poetry of the words, and allows the kahal, the community, to take them in and cycle them out in their voices, which is part of the point of prayer.

I don't know if I'll ever be able to speak fluent Hebrew. That's a maybe/maybe not. I worry that I won't be able to get enough vocabulary to stick in my brain. But I need use the aspect of humility to be able to learn in my time and not worry what advanced state I should be--again, the message of presence. Remember that like everything else in life, it's a journey. As long as I keep going, persevere, it doesn't matter how big or small the steps.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Kvelling. . .

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

Today is one of those days that makes a teacher proud. One of my students had his bar mitzvah today. After nine months of learning and studying and practicing (another three :) he shared so much Torah with translation, commentary, and chanting (three again :).

His Torah portion was Lev 25:1 - 28 of Parashat B'har--not the hardest section of Torah for a 13-year-old, but not the easiest either. In a nutshell, it has instructions for having the land lie fallow every seven years, and about the Jubilee year, every 50 years, when all possessions revert back to their original owners. All of this is a reminder that the earth does not belong to people, but to God.

While working on the translation, in verse 17 we came across the phrase, "fear your God." When I see this phrase, which comes up often in Torah and liturgy, I process it as awe rather than fear. When I asked Josh how he would translate it, he came up with "respect the power of God." It was a moment for this tutor to kvell.

His drash, his teaching, centered around how we need to appreciate that the land needs to rest as much as we do. He referenced someone he knows who is a farmer, who reinforced the practice of rotating crops and planting specific crops to bring back nutrients to the land, as well as letting the land rest. I have a feeling these teachings will stay with him--which is, ultimately, what this study is all about.

And then there was his chanting--which was spot on. In fact, there was a point where I thought he needed a correction, but he, very lightly, corrected me---which is the best a teacher can hope for.

Just a wonderful that will stay with me for many years to come.

Friday, May 09, 2014

It's all about three . . .

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

A day of threes--twenty-four is eight threes which is three weeks and three days. There is a recurring theme of three in Jewish tradition. Abraham traveled three days when he found the place for the binding of Isaac (Gen 22:4). It was on the third new moon, the start of the third month of the liberation from Egypt that the Israelites arrived at Sinai (Ex 19:1). They spent three days in purification rituals before receiving the Asseret Debrot, the 10 utterances know as the 10 commandments (Ex 19:11). In the first chapter of Pirkei Avot, the Teachings of our sages, we learn the teaching from Shimon Ha-Tzadik, "The world rests on three things -- Torah, Avodah--Service, and Gemilut Chasadim--acts of loving kindness. And there's the thread that cycles through so much of ritual and liturgy--creation to revelation to redemption.

Three also seems to be the "magic" number when my students are preparing for their b'nei mitzvah. As they learn to chant, verse by verse, in layers. First, read and get comfortable with the Hebrew words and their meanings. Second, decode the trope, the cantillation, that gives the punctuation, the phrasing, and the music. Third, practice the verse as a whole.

And the practice itself has its meme of three. The first time through is very halting. The second time is better, with stops at the harder words and note combinations. It's with the third round that the smoothness starts to come. It's a phenomena I've now seen again and again...and again :)

Maybe it's the ancients of our heritage looking after the generations ahead. Maybe it's part of that eternal stream of tradition that my students enter into in their journey to adulthood. Maybe it's just the proof positive of "the third time's the charm."

Maybe 3 is the number of perseverance . . .

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Sometimes it all just works . . .

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

Yesterday was one of those days that worked from start to finish. A day to remember when things go awry.

I led minyan in the morning, and was surprised at the end of the service with a visit from an eight-year-old friend who had to run in to give me a hug before she boarded the bus for school.  She and I have always had a bond, and I know I will be a role model for her. So for her, a woman reading Torah, leading services, and wearing tefillin will be as it should be. May it be so for all of her generation.

Then home to put the finishing touches on my lessons plans for that evening. There are times that can be a struggle, but yesterday it was smooth sailing. In my course on the Jewish experience in America, it was time to teach the Jewish role in the Civil Rights Movement--a favorite lesson of mine. Sadly, these kids are fuzzy on that part of American history in general, most of them just knowing about Martin Luther King and little else. So it's eye-opening for them to learn about the rampant discrimination of the time and the actions of those--so many of them Jews--who fought to help right the wrongs.

Teaching my 7th grade Torah study class has been so difficult this trimester. Things that have worked with other classes just didn't work. The biggest issue is a couple of students who not just refuse to participate, but seem determined to make sure that no one got a chance to learn. Not really wanting to once again put a lot of effort into something that was sure to fail no matter what I did, I chose to show them the G-dcast on the Parashat Masei, use the accompanying curriculum, and hope for the best.

Then it was off to tutor a bar mitzvah student. He's a nice kid, but the training has gone a bit slower than I'd hoped. His Hebrew is not great, which definitely hinders the process. But the system I've developed is kicking in, as he can take the trope that he knows and layer that on the haftarah words. He's doing the decoding, often without my help. I told him how proud I was of him, how he has persevered, how he is really thinking and putting it all together. The smile on his face was a great reward.

Then it was off to teach. And to my surprise, it was a good double-header. It wasn't a surprise that the Jews in America class was engaged--most of them are interested in the topic. But it was nice that in our discussions they referenced earlier classes, making comparisons of the different eras in American history. I really feel like I'm teaching them something they will remember and apply in their lives that lie ahead.

But it was the Torah class that sealed the day for me. It wasn't the most enlightening class, I don't know what the kids will retain, but, for the most part, they followed along with the plan. And the activity, to make up a plan for a city, integrating ecological factors, housing and schools, transportation, commerce, power sources, entertainment and green spaces--intrigued them. There was silliness, but at least they created their towns. The most interesting moment was when I had to take a phone away from one of my most difficult students. She balked at first, but it was her third strike and she had to give it up. She pouted for a bit, but then, lo and behold, became more involved than she had ever been, and seemed not to miss the phone at all. She didn't whine about it, didn't bother me to give it back to her. In fact, I handed it back to her at the end of class without her even asking. A minor triumph, but a triumph none the less.

A true day of strength and perseverance, for both my students and me.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Year-end Teaching Perspective

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

Twenty-two days of the omer, and two more Wednesday night teaching sessions. Time to look at the year, see what worked, what didn't; who I reached, who was seemingly unreachable; what was most rewarding, what was most challenging.

In past years now I've envied day school teachers for their classroom time and resources. So much of the curriculum I read is based on the experiential model with multi-day projects incorporating journals and computer research in small interactive work groups. My teaching environment is too unstable for that. I get 50 minutes, once a week, in a 7 - 8 week module, never really knowing how many and which ones of my 15 registered students will attend on any given day.

This year, thanks to my participation in various discussions with a cadre of dedicated Jewish educators,  I've gained a different perspective that reminds me of an advantage I have working in the supplementary synagogue school world. I have more leeway to take those curricula and adapt them to the needs of my students without having to worry about meeting specifically laid out standards. I have the freedom to write my own curriculum, mixing sources as I see fit. I have more flexibility that enables me to let my students take the lead if their input takes the lesson plan off the course that I set. My brief is to bring the critical, creative thinking out of them, without concern of what they need to spit out simply for the sake of passing a test.

All educators have rewards and challenges. The challenges feed our minds, keeping our teachings fresh. The rewards feed our souls, fueling our passion. Keeping both in balance moves us ahead.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Writing in the past; editing for the future

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

With all my talk about the present, I end this week in both the past and the future.

I spent part of the afternoon going over the changes for the Kitchen's Machzor (High Holiday Prayerbook) 2.0. Machzor 1.0 was created in 8 months with the understanding that it would be revised and redesigned in a year or two. It made it two years, and will always shine as our first edition that would form the basis for all editions to come. But the time has come for the new edition, and I will spend the next three weeks immersed in the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgy fixing mistakes and expanding the content.

The rest of today was spent preparing for tomorrow's classes and tutoring b'nei mitzvah students who live on opposite sides of the bay. I needed to count the next day of the omer when I finally got home. So while I'm technically in the 22nd day of the omer, this entry marks the day past.

My practice is to have one entry for each day--a goal sometimes met, sometimes not. Allowances like this are sometimes needed to make it work. And that is the message of compassion for the process as we now move into a week of perseverance.

Monday, May 05, 2014

One day at a time

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

Time is relative.

This morning, I was talking with a 26 year old contemplating rabbinical school and to her, five years is a long time. While I could smile, understanding her perspective, to me, as I approach six decades, it's a small segment.

Time is a matter of perspective.

Five years is short as I look back, but to my parents it must seem like a long time ahead, their ages feeding their need of immediacy.

Time is slow when I'm feeling impatient, and fast when a deadline approaches.

It is only in the present that time     just     is . . .

Meditation is one way of staying in the present; marking the omer is another. We stay grounded in each day with its own unique focus of sephirot. We are encouraged not to to look towards the next until we say the blessing and make the count.

The omer reminds us to take each day as it comes, whatever it brings. Perhaps that is the convergence of foundation and compassion.

Sunday, May 04, 2014

Looking for compassion

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

Along with the omer, there is another period of contemplation built into the Jewish spiritual calendar--the month of Elul. Elul is the month before Tishrei--which marks Rosh Hashanah, the head of the year. It is a time that is to be spent concentrating, meditating on a personal teshuvah--often translated as repentance, but it has the connotation of a turning, a returning to a state of understanding where repentance is not necessary.

I have spent more than a couple Elul periods working on finding a teshuvah from my tendency to be judgmental--sometimes of others but more often of myself. I will need to be aware of this element of my personality, be mindful all my life to keep from allowing that negativity to rule my emotions and my connections to others. I am forever grateful to my teacher, Zoketsu Norman Fischer, who gave me the key that can turn my judgmental inclination into compassion.

In a teaching that Norman gave on teshuvah, he talked about the turning in a very literal manner. Take that aspect that you are working on and turn it around--look what is on the other side. What you find will show a different path, a way to redemption.

I found compassion on the flip side of being judgmental. Hidden within the judgments is caring. For if I didn't care, there would be no reason to judge. And when I concentrate on the caring instead of the judgment, I find compassion.

Saturday, May 03, 2014

The past, present, future of life

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

It's the 18th day - the חי - chai - day of the omer. Today is the "life" day of the omer.

Each Hebrew letter has a number associated with it, which is how Jewish dates are written, and is the basis for Gamatria - the studying of Jewish text from the number value of the words.
חי - chai - means life
ח = 8
י = 10
So יח is 18 = life.

Today is also Shabbat - a day of rest - a day which is made for contemplation of one's life. These days of contemplation mean more to me this year as I face my 60th birthday in a couple of months. It's one of those milestones that force you to look at your life--where you've been, where you are, where you're going.

As I look back--there's a lot that has been accomplished.

As I look forward--there's a lot still to be done.

I stand in the here and now -- appreciating the past, anticipating the future . . .

But I need to live in the present

Friday, May 02, 2014

The TImeless Stream

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

Time for another breath of Shabbat, with a coolness not felt in these past days.
My mind is full at the moment, but it's time to clear it out, breath in Shabbat.
Thankful for these interludes built into each week,
feeling the wisdom of the ancients,
entering into that timeless stream with them

Good Shabbas to all

Thursday, May 01, 2014

First Fruits

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

Shavuot, the feast of the first fruits may be weeks away--4 weeks and 6 days, to be exact :) -- but yesterday I tasted my first fruits of the season--apricots, nectarines, peaches, and cherries. The nectarines and peaches have the tartness of the early season. The apricots are mostly sweet, with more consistancy coming in the weeks ahead. The cherries--sweet, tart--I don't care. I'm eating cherries again, and that makes me very happy.

One of the things I am grateful for in my Jewish practice is the awareness I have cycles in the day, the week, the month, and the year. Rabbi Lew instilled in me how the different ways knowing where I am in that time and space can bring different sets of mindfulness. Concentrating on the aspects of where I am now while being aware of the context of that present moment is a great focus for reflection. Spring is not winter; day is not night; month beginning has a different feel than month end. But as I teach in meditation--the wonder of concentrating on the present moment is that it contains all the moments that have lead to it; and it is a part of every moment that follows.

Which brings me to the joy of these first fruits. Because I eat seasonally, these are my first mouthfuls of this freshness this year. Waiting all year for these tastes, I have an appreciation for the time and energy it takes for them to reach my farmer's market. And I will take a portion of the bounty and freeze it to give me that hint of flavor through the rest of the year.

But the present moment of ripeness, while carrying both that past work and future reminder, is the peak experience. And these first fruits, like the first breath of meditation, feels--and tastes--so good.