Tears and celebration

Why do we break a glass at the end of every Jewish wedding? There are many answers, but one of the interpretations which resonates for me is this: we break a glass to remind ourselves that even in our moments of greatest joy, the world contains brokenness. That's how I feel today - mourning the Charleston shooting and today's news of horrific terror attacks in Tunisia, Kuwait and France; celebrating today's news about the SCOTUS ruling on marriage equality across the USA.

Imrs

This image made me cry. [Source]

Back in 2012 I wrote:

I hope that by the time [our son] is old enough to understand, the notion of a state passing a law against gay marriage will seem as misguided, plainly hurtful, and outdated as the notion of a state passing a law against someone of one race marrying someone of another. (I'm far from the first to note the painful similarities there.) I don't know who he will love; right now I'm pretty sure he loves his family and his friends and Thomas the Tank Engine, and that's as it should be. But I hope and pray that by the time he's ready to marry, if and when that day comes, he (and his generation) will have the right to marry, period. And not just in a handful of states, but anywhere in this country.

I hoped then that by the time our son was grown, our nation might have risen to the new ethical heights of granting the right to marry to all of its citizens, regardless of their gender or gender expression, and regardless of the gender or gender expression of their beloved. I never in a million years could have imagined that it would happen before he even started kindergarten. I'm grateful to everyone who devoted heart and soul to the work of making this possible now, in our days.

It's hard to wrap my head and heart around the disjunction between the sheer joy which I feel at the prospect of the right to marry being granted to every American, and the grief which arises at the news of today's terror attacks around the world. Though I think that kind of disjunction is part and parcel of ordinary life. It's a little bit like having a parent in the hospital while one's child is celebrating a joyful milestone -- love and sorrow, joy and grief, intertwined. Most of our lives contain these juxtapositions.

One of the pieces of framed art on my synagogue office wall contains a famous quote from the collection of rabbinic wisdom known as Pirkei Avot: "It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either." Our nation is still marred by many inequalities, and there is much work yet to be done. Our world is still marred by endless brokenness. But I believe it's also important to stop and celebrate what we can, when we can. Our hearts need that.

Today we celebrate the SCOTUS ruling on marriage equality. Tonight we celebrate Shabbat, and may imagine that the Shabbat bride looks a bit more radiant than usual in reflection of this joyful news. And when the new week comes, it will be time to put our shoulders to the wheel and keep working toward the dream of a world free of hatred, free of violence, free of bigotry, where everyone on this earth truly knows and feels that we are all made in the image of God and all deserve safety and joy.

May those who are grieving lost loved ones in Tunisia, Kuwait, and France -- and for that matter Charleston SC, and everywhere else tarnished with acts of hatred -- be comforted along with all who mourn. May we gather up the shards of their broken hearts and cradle them lovingly as we celebrate today's victories for human rights. And for those who celebrate, may tonight's Shabbat be sweet.

 

Edited to add: ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal's official statement.


New prayers for b'nai mitzvah at Ritualwell

LogoI have long been a fan of Ritualwell, an online resource center where one can learn about Jewish rituals and practice, browse a large bank of new and innovative Jewish prayers and rituals, and find resources and materials to enhance one's own spiritual practice.

This spring they've launched a series they're calling #ReimagineRitual, and the first ritual they wanted to explore is b'nai mitzvah, our coming-of-age ceremony for thirteen-year-olds. First they shared some blog posts about new ways of thinking about b'nai mitzvah (don't miss Renewing the Bar/Bat Mitzvah One Student At A Time). Then there was a #ReimagineBnaiMitzvah chat on Twitter. And then they commissioned me to create something new.

My offering is now live on the Ritualwell site. Here's the introduction I wrote to contextualize the prayers I shared:

After the #ReimagineBnaiMitzvah chat, what emerged for me most strongly were not answers but questions. People tweeted a lot of questions: how can we encourage students to take ownership of their own b'nai mitzvah journey? Is there a way to do b'nai mitzvah which doesn't reinforce binary notions of gender? How can we tend to the unique soul of every child, regardless of where they are on the spectrum of gender and sexuality? Is there a core body of material which we expect our b'nai mitzvah students to master? What kind of role does (or should) social justice play in their learning?

These prayers arose in response to the chat. I hope that they will speak to our b'nai mitzvah students,  to those who are entrusted with their care—and also to people in "traditional" congregational contexts, and people whose Jewish lives unfold outside of congregational walls.

I wrote a pair of prayers to use as the b'nai mitzvah ties tzitzit onto their tallit before the celebration, and a trio of prayers (one for parent or caregiver, one for the student who is coming of age, and one for the rabbi or spiritual leader) to be used at the celebration itself.

You can find my offering here at Ritualwell: Blessings for a B'nai Mitzvah. Feedback welcome, here or there!


Preparing for shiva

Looking for a printable shiva minyan liturgy? There's one at the end of this post.

 

I almost always begin a shiva minyan by telling a story about what we're doing and why we're doing it. (Shiva means seven and minyan means the group of at-least-ten who gather together to pray; a shiva minyan is a prayer gathering during the week called shiva, the first week after a loved one's burial.)

The custom of the shiva minyan came about, I explain, at a place and time where it was assumed that all Jewish men considered themselves obligated to pray three times a day. (This often draws forth a chuckle from the room, because we know that this is not how most of us in the room approach our prayer lives.) Imagine that you have the custom of going to shul every day: both because you feel metzuveh (commanded / obligated) to daven (pray) in community, and because you want to help the community make a minyan, the quorum of ten which is required for our call-and-response prayers, among them the Mourner's Kaddish.

Suddenly your life is ruptured by loss. A loved one dies. Now your days feel strange and measureless as you navigate this new landscape of aveilut, mourning and bereavement. The sages of our tradition recognized that in the wake of a loved one's death, the mere prospect of getting dressed nicely and leaving the house may feel completely overwhelming. So during the first week of mourning, the minyan comes to you. The community comes to your home; they bring prayerbooks, they bring food, they sit with you and listen to you and daven with you so that you can recite the Mourner's Kaddish in the embrace of loving community.

A shiva minyan, in other words, is intended to be something to soothe and comfort the mourner -- not yet-another-thing for the mourner to worry about doing, or doing "right." It's not supposed to be an onerous obligation; it's supposed to remove the onerousness from the obligation which one has already taken on, the obligation of daily communal prayer. But for those who don't have a practice of daily communal liturgical prayer, and/or who may not be especially comfortable with the Hebrew of traditional Jewish liturgy, the prospect of a shiva minyan may seem daunting. It may feel like an unwanted obligation, or be a source of discomfort, which is exactly the opposite of its purpose.

Continue reading "Preparing for shiva" »


Visiting those who are gone

OldMy congregation, like many communities, has a custom of holding a short memorial service in our cemetery on the Sunday afternoon just before Rosh Hashanah. It is usually an intimate affair. Those who attend tend to be our oldest members, who frequently have generations of loved ones buried in this hallowed ground. Many of our younger members are transplants to the area (as am I, though after 22 years I have come to feel pretty well rooted here) and don't have graves to visit here. And even if we did have graves to visit, I don't know that most of us would take on this practice.

Every time I prepare to lead this service, I think about my maternal grandmother, Alice Epstein z"l, whom we called by the Czech term of endearment Lali. She grew up in Prague, and used to grouse that Americans were peculiar in our reticence to visit cemeteries. In her childhood it was common practice to visit the cemetery on Sundays, perhaps bringing a picnic, and to spend time paying respectful visits to one's loved ones who had left this life.

I think I must have heard that story from her when we visited the new cemetery in Prague together in 1993 along with several other members of my family. ("New" because it was built in 1891 to relieve the overcrowding at the old cemetery, which had been in use since the 1400s. We visited that one too, though more as a historical site than as a place of our own family history.) Where the old cemetery was a crowded jumble of ancient Hebrew-carved stones, I remember the new cemetery as being stately and green, filled with ivy and tall trees and art deco headstones.

ArchI think of that Czech cemetery when I visit the one where I work today, because this one too is tree-lined and beautiful. And I wonder: is it Americans (as opposed to the Czech) who don't make a habit of visiting cemeteries, or is it the younger generation, no matter where in the world we are? ("Younger" in this case meaning younger than my grandparents, of blessed memory, who were born in the early years of the 20th century.) How many of us, in today's world, still live in the towns where our parents or grandparents or great-grandparents are buried?

My shul's cemetery is up in the hills just outside of North Adams proper, in the town of Clarksburg. To get there, one drives along route two and then up into the hills. One drives past houses and trees and horses at pasture before arriving at the gates to our cemetery, our "house of life." That's what Jewish cemeteries are traditionally called. The name arose because of the belief that when this incarnation ends, our souls continue to eternal life beneath the wings of Shekhinah. For many people today, maybe the cemetery is a house of life in that it reminds us that we ourselves are still living.

PnAnyway, our house of life is in a beautiful spot, surrounded by trees whose leaves rustle at this season as they begin to turn orange and red and gold. They'll flame brightly before they brown and fall. There's something especially poignant about holding our cemetery service surrounded by trees which are about to undergo, or are already undergoing, that change. It's so easy to experience the seasons as a metaphor for the cycles of human life.

Each year on the Sunday before the holidays I join a handful of our members in a semicircle of folding chairs and I lead them in prayer. The service itself is brief: a few prayers, a few poems, some singing which rings out against the headstones and the hills. The memorial prayer which I sing at every funeral. The mourner's kaddish, our prayer which reminds us to offer praise even in the face of death. And then the small crowd disperses to walk among the stones, to trace engraved names with wrinkled fingertips, to place pebbles as markers of our visit and our remembrance.

PebblesDuring this year's service I pointed out that the silent yizkor  prayers  of remembrance promise that we will engage in acts of tzedakah (righteous giving) in memory of those whom we have lost. I explained the traditional belief that giving tzedakah in remembrance of a loved one can help that loved one's aliyat ha-neshamah, the ascent of their soul to higher and higher levels of the heavens. Even if that image doesn't work for us, or doesn't mesh with what we believe about the afterlife, it's still a beautiful teaching.

After the service, when we were lingering at our folding chairs, someone asked what I believe about the afterlife. We talked for a while about what I believe -- I offered the image of the droplet of water rejoining the waterfall, the soul returning to its source; I offered my belief that those who have died can hear us when we need to speak to them, at Yizkor services four times a year, or when we visit them in their places of burial -- and how my beliefs fit with some of our tradition's teachings, among them the idea of gilgul ha-nefesh, the "transmigration of souls."

And then I sat for a while with a particular elder congregant, who reminds me every time we meet that when we first met he "engaged me" to officiate at his funeral. I told him, as I always do, that I remember the promise -- and that I'm glad that he hasn't yet cashed in that chit.

There is something awe-inspiring for me about being able to daven these prayers with our oldest members each year, and also with some of the children of our elders who come in remembrance of their parents. Our elders have seen a lot of rabbis come and go. I'm honored that they, along with the rest of my community, have entrusted the care of this holy community to me.

When I wake up on the Sunday before the holidays, there's always a lazy part of me which wishes -- just the slightest bit -- that I could spend this last Sunday of the old year curled up on the couch with a giant mug of coffee, the Sunday Times, and a good football game. It would be nice to relax into a little bit of normalcy and calm before the whirlwind of the Jewish holidays! But I know that when I get to the cemetery, its calm quiet will enliven me. I will remember every funeral over which I have been humbled to preside. I will greet my community's elders with gratitude for their presence and for my own. And for the remainder of the the old year, and well into the new one, I will be glad to have gone.


New beginnings, Doctor Who, and teshuvah

Last spring, just before Shavuot, I brought two classical midrash about the giving of the Torah at Sinai to my Hebrew school class, and one of my students made some fannish connections.

Rabbi Yochanan said: When God’s voice came forth at Mount Sinai, it divided itself into seventy human languages, so that the whole world might understand it. All at Mount Sinai, young and old, women, children and infants heard the voice of God according to their ability to understand. Moses, too, understood only according to his capacity, as it is said (Ex. 19:19), “Moses spoke, and God answered him with a voice.” With a voice that Moses could hear. (Shemot Rabbah 5:9)

I brought this midrash to my class, and one of my bar mitzvah students -- a big fan of the television show Doctor Who -- raised his hand and said, "It's like the TARDIS was there, translating!" I knew exactly what he meant.

TardisWith some prompting he explained to the class that the TARDIS is a time machine. It appears to be an iconic blue police box, though it is famously "bigger on the inside." And it contains a translation circuit which ensures that no matter where or when its inhabitants travel, everyone can be understood. I told him I thought that drawing an analogy to the TARDIS was an interesting way to think about the teaching that everyone heard Torah in a language they could understand. The tradition also teaches that "Torah has 70 faces; turn it and turn it, for everything is in it." Arguably the Torah too is "bigger on the inside" -- always containing more than we imagined.

Then we moved to the second midrash I had brought:

Because the Holy One appeared to Israel at the Red Sea as a mighty man waging war, and appeared to them at Sinai as a teacher who teaches the day’s lesson and then again and again goes over with his pupils what they have been taught, and appeared to them in the days of Daniel as an elder teaching Torah, and in the days of Solomon appeared to them as a young man, the Holy One said to Israel: Come to no false conclusions because you see Me in many guises, for I am God who was with you at the Red Sea and I am God who is with you at Sinai: I am Adonai your God.

The fact is, R. Hiyya bar Abba said, that God appeared to them in a guise appropriate to each and every place and time. At the Red Sea God appeared to them as a mighty man waging their wars, at Sinai God appeared to them as a teacher, as one who stands upright in awe when teaching Torah; in the days of Daniel, God appeared to them as an elder teaching Torah, for the Torah is at its best when it comes from the mouths of old men; in the days of Solomon God appeared to them as a young man in keeping with the youthful spirit of Solomon’s generation. At Sinai, then, when God said, I am Adonai Your God, appropriately God appeared to them as a teacher teaching Torah. (Pesikta de-Rab Kahana 12)

This, too, made my student think of the Doctor, because the Doctor also appears in different guises at different times: young and old, warrior and scholar. He was so enthusiastic about drawing out these lines of inquiry that I promised him that he could speak about this at his bar mitzvah if he were willing to do a bit of extra learning with me, a bargain which he eagerly accepted.

As I worked with him over the summer on his d'var Torah ("word of Torah" -- the spoken-word teaching he would offer at his bar mitzvah which would relate Torah and Jewish tradition to his own life), we talked both about how he understood his Torah portion and its relevance to his life, and about how these midrash evoke his favorite pop culture hero. (Of course we also talked about how Jewish understandings of God are different from the Doctor, because that matters too.) When he spoke from the bimah, he spoke about his Torah portion; about his participation in one of our congregation's social action projects; and about how he related Doctor Who to his understanding of what it means to be a Jew.

Continue reading "New beginnings, Doctor Who, and teshuvah" »


May his light continue to shine

My beloved teacher, rebbe, and zaide ("grandfather") Rabbi Zalman Shachter-Shalomi, z"l (may his memory be a blessing) died this morning in his sleep. He was 89.

Here is a seven-minute video in which he explains and explores psalm 23 -- which seems like a fitting way both to remember his vitality, his laughter, and his wisdom, and also to ease the hearts of those who grieve.

I'll write more about him later. Right now I have only tears and gratitude.

Reb Zalman is the reason I became a rabbi. That's a longer story; maybe I'll tell it next week. For now, I am so endlessly grateful to have known him, to have learned from him, and to be a part of his rabbinic lineage.

May all who mourn his passing -- most especially his widow Eve, his many children and grandchildren, his students and the students of his students -- be comforted. זכרונו לברך –– may his memory be a blessing.

 

Memorial contributions may be made to ALEPH's Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi Endowment for Jewish Renewal.


Debra Zaslow's Bringing Bubbe Home

Several years ago, at an ALEPH Kallah in California, I was blessed to take a week-long sacred storytelling class taught by master storyteller Debra (a.k.a. Dvorah) Zaslow. The class was wonderful, not least because Dvorah's way of telling stories, and teaching the telling of stories, goes straight to the heart. So when I heard that she had a new book out -- Bringing Bubbe Home: A Memoir of Letting Go Through Love and Death (White Cloud Press, 2014) -- I knew I wanted to read it.

Here's a video trailer for the book:

"Seventeen years ago I was immersed in my life as a professional storyteller, wife of a rabbi, and mother of two teenagers when I felt compelled to bring my 103 year-old grandmother, Bubbe, who was dying alone in a nursing facility, home to live and die with my family. I had no idea if I'd have the emotional stamina to midwife her to the other side."

The story unfolds with slow inexorability. There is nothing easy about bringing an elderly relative home to die, and this slim but powerful memoir doesn't gloss over the hard parts. And yet once I started reading, I didn't want to stop; I wanted to know how it would unfold. It's not exactly that I wanted to "know what happens next" -- obviously the book was going to lead to death, the end of every human story since time immemorial. But I wanted to see how it would happen, and how Dvorah and her family would get there, and what blessings might be there for the finding.

Continue reading "Debra Zaslow's Bringing Bubbe Home" »


Reflections on a b'nei mitzvah

3260530587_6495049153_nLeading services on a Shabbat when one of our kids is called to the Torah as a bar or bat mitzvah can be an interesting challenge. For one thing, our numbers swell -- from our usual 15-20 to 60, 80, even 100. For another, the people who've gathered for a lifecycle event usually don't all know each other, and they often don't know our melodies, and there are always some -- including the junior high school contingent -- who are not Jewish and perhaps have never been to a synagogue before in their lives.

A particular kind of output of energy is required to lead this kind of kahal (congregation.) In some ways it's more like High Holiday services -- our folding walls folded back, the big sanctuary full of people, my concomitant outpouring of voice and song and self -- than like a "regular" Shabbat morning.

I take pleasure in being able to introduce our liturgy, the rhythms of our prayer, to people (both non-Jewish and Jewish) who may not have much familiarity with these words or the flow of the service. I explain a bit as we go, trying to make sure that my explanations serve as useful guideposts to the service but not obstacles or roadblocks to the way the service needs to flow. I try to make people laugh out loud at least a few times. When I get chuckles from around the room, I know I'm reaching people.

Often I don't know until after the service is over whether it's "worked" for people -- whether it reached them where they are, whether it opened them up to an emotion, whether they are emerging feeling a little bit different than when we began. Often I never find out whether it worked, or for whom. But sometimes after the service people will spontaneously offer me a response, and I treasure those. I love knowing that our morning of worship took someone someplace they maybe didn't expect to go.

Of course, the greatest joy for me is watching one of our kids shine. Watching those years of learning, the hard work of practicing the Torah portion and overcoming the hurdle of reading from an unpointed handwritten scroll, all of the effort that went into preparing a d'var Torah which will teach something about their Torah portion and how it relates to life that they know -- watching all of that pay off. Watching their family kvelling, taking visible pride in their child's lifecycle milestone.

These days I can't help imagining what it will be like when it is our son on the bimah (pulpit). What will his voice sound like at thirteen? What will his sense of humor be like? What will be his passions, his obsessions, to which he will struggle to relate his Torah portion? Will I weep when we offer him blessings? I try not to write scripts. He's only four and a half. We have a long way to go before we get there. I don't want to focus on what's coming and miss what's happening now. But there's a certain sweetness in the anticipation.

Could I have imagined, at my own celebration of bat mitzvah, how much joy I would take in this rabbinic life? I'd like to think that if I could send a message back through time, twelve-year-old me wouldn't be all that startled to hear that this is what I do now, and that I love doing it, every time. I remember aspiring to learn the service well enough that if the rabbi were to call in sick, I would (I imagined) be able to lead the congregation in prayer all by myself. Maybe this is exactly where I was always meant to be.

 

Photo: taken the day before my bat mitzvah. With my maternal grandparents, the rabbi, and the cantor.

 


The December Project

Some of you may have read the recent essay by Sara Davidson in the Huffington Post titled Passover Asks: Are You Ready to Go? Here's an excerpt from near the beginning of the piece:

When I arrived that morning at his home in Boulder, CO, the rabbi's wife, Eve, was in the kitchen, preparing for Passover by removing "hametz" -- anything containing flour that's risen -- from every drawer, shelf and counter. I walked down to the basement, where Reb Zalman stood up from his computer desk and greeted me with a hug.

"What does Passover feel like in the December years?" I asked, as we settled in chairs facing each other.

"That's such a good question. Give me a moment to go inside." He closed his eyes, waiting to sense what would arise. "When we come to the end of the seder, we open the door for Elijah the prophet. I ask everyone to be silent and think, 'What question would I like to ask the messenger of God?'" He said people reflect on that, sitting quietly while the door is open, and after it's closed, he asks if they'd like to share what they heard.

"Then we come to the place in the ceremony where Elijah asks, 'Are you ready to go?'"

"Go where?" I said.

"Go forth from the seder into the world. But for me it's also, 'Are you ready to go?'"

Readiness is an essential quality in the story of the Exodus: readiness to leave, to head into the unknown, to trust. Readiness is part of celebrating seder. And readiness is required if one wants to face the end of life gracefully, whenever that end may come.

December_projectThis is a story which also appears in Sara Davidson's new book The December Project, subtitled "An Extraordinary Rabbi and a Skeptical Seeker Confront Life's Greatest Mystery." The book chronicles two years' worth of regular conversations between Sara and Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, "Reb Zalman," about navigating the December of one's life, doing spiritual end-of-life work, and approaching death with open eyes, clear heart, and untroubled mind.

The resulting book is somewhere between memoir (stories of Reb Zalman's childhood, upbringing, adventures, and spiritual life) and the kind of conversation one might have over coffee with a dear friend after many years of connection, when you can go straight to the stuff that matters.

For we who are students of Reb Zalman, or students of his students, much of this material will be familiar. Many of us will have heard him tell these stories, often more than once! But that doesn't make them any less a pleasure to read, and being able to imagine his presence, his humor, and his singing voice just adds to the experience of diving into the book. And for those who haven't been blessed with a personal relationship with this rebbe, the book offers some of those gifts in printed form.

Reb Zalman's been working with these ideas for years. Some of the practices at the end of this book are similar to the exercises in his From Aging to Sage-ing, a book which I also recommend. But this book takes a different tack. And Sara Davidson, this book's author, offers an interesting path in. She is open about both her doubts and her hopes. Over the course of the book, she takes us on her journey -- not only into these conversations, but also into her mother's illness and death, and into her own anxieties about the end of life and what comes after. She strikes a keen balance between sharing enough of herself that she is a real presence in the book, and withdrawing enough of herself that we can feel that we too are sitting in intimate conversation with Reb Zalman, gleaning some of what he's harvested over nearly ninety years of life.

In one scene which has stayed with me, Sara has appeared for their regular appointment and Reb Zalman is clearly unwell, struggling with a variety of physical ailments which are dragging him down. They talk about his need to disengage even from beloved students in order to marshall his energy for his own survival. And then he tells her about how he used to maintain an open-door policy on Shabbat, where people were welcome to come and pray and sing and learn; now he spends Shabbat only with his wife. Here's how Sara describes it:

Before Friday night arrives, he writes his love-letter and slips it under her plate. On Saturday at dusk, they sit outside if the weather is mild and sing Shabbos melodies until it's totally dark. "It's so wonderful," he said, and I watched his body soften and his breathing become more relaxed. It was as if the words, like the smell of chickens roasting on Fridays at camp, had a Pavlovian effect, taking him to a Shabbos state of mind.

In telling the story of how he has come to adapt Shabbat practices for his late eighties, he models for us what it would be like to thoughtfully choose what to relinquish as we age.

Reb Zalman's sweetness, his sense of humor, and his deep hunger for God all come through in this book -- as do his idiosyncracies and some of the challenges which have resulted. Here are stories about Chabad, about meeting Howard Thurman and coming to deep ecumenism, about experiencing Christian and Buddhist mentors, even about experimenting with LSD as a path to God. He's also honest about his failings and his mistakes -- not in a self-congratulatory way, but thoughtfully. I was particularly moved by his frank and gentle words about his first marriage and its dissolution, and by the chapter where he asks to undergo taharah -- the washing / blessing / dressing of one's body after death -- in order to prepare himself for that experience when it comes.

5362606310_35a01cbb56_nOn a purely personal note, I got a particular frisson of joy while reading the chapter "You Can Take Me Now," in which Sara describes two different ALEPH ordination ceremonies. She describes Hazzan Shoshanna Brown singing a niggun which had been a favorite of the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, as a prelude to asking Reb Zalman to offer a teaching. Sara writes:

With high color in his face, Reb Zalman took the mike and faced the audience. He explained that the Rebbe used to sing that melody to prepare himself and his students for a transmission. "Want to hear my transmission?" he asked. Turning to the ordinees on stage, he threw out his arm. "You are my transmission."

That was at my ordination, and it is a moment I will never forget. (Photo source.)

Must one be in one's "December years" to get something out of this book? Not in the least. As a student in the ALEPH hashpa'ah / spiritual direction program, I spent a semester studying and engaging in the work Reb Zalman calls 'sage-ing' -- preparing, mindfully and consciously, for the transition out of this life. Many of you know that I am not yet forty. Then again, I'm also a multiple stroke survivor, so I'd already begun to approach some of these big questions.

I remember talking with my spiritual director about what it was like to begin doing this sage-ing work at a young age. She told me that she had done the same, and that doing this work had enriched her in innumerable ways. After all, our tradition prescribes making teshuvah on the eve of our death, and since we never know when that will be, the sages teach us to make teshuvah -- to do this inner work of discernment, forgiveness, and letting go -- every night before we sleep. (I've written about this before -- see my post The vidui prayer of Yom Kippur -- and of every night.) 

Death is perhaps the greatest mystery there is. In this book, Sara Davidson and Reb Zalman have given us a beautiful example of how to live with that awareness joyfully, and how to approach it not as something to be abhorred, but as a holy transition -- the end of this deployment, to use Reb Zalman's language, and the beginning of something new.


Leading my family in morning prayer, again

Seven years ago I had the honor of leading my family in prayer as we celebrated my niece's bat mitzvah. It was my first time leading services for my family, which was an incredibly meaningful experience for me. I had also never led a service by myself for such a large crowd; we were close to 150 people that Shabbat afternoon!

This morning I am once again presiding over a family simcha (joyous occasion) -- the bar mitzvah of that niece's little brother. This time around, a group of about 20 will be davening together in a more intimate setting -- the prayer space at the Bar El bed and breakfast in Tzfat. (This is where the Renewal-style minyan of Tzfat meets during the Days of Awe.)

We're borrowing a Torah scroll from my friend Reuven Goldfarb, who took my "Writing the psalms of our hearts" class at the ALEPH Kallah last summer. (I'm also borrowing a guitar through Reuven, which I deeply appreciate!) There will be song, prayer, poetry, and Torah aplenty.

It's always a joy to be a part of a young person's coming-of-age into a new stage of maturing Jewish identity, and the joy is increased when that young person is part of my own family.

For those who are interested, here's the siddur we created for the occasion: MaxSiddurFinal [pdf]. (The ones we'll be using this morning in Tzfat each have unique covers, featuring art courtesy of my niece; this is just the interior material.) It's a pretty simple weekday morning siddur, with some good poetry interwoven with the prayers -- I'm looking forward to using it.

Whether or not you are davening shacharit this morning, I hope you will think kindly of my family today as we celebrate this lifecycle milestone wtih joy!



 

 


On taharah before cremation

Bmc pic for webLongtime readers may recall that I have been blessed for many years to serve on my community's chevra kadisha (volunteer burial society). We are the group of community members who, before burial, lovingly wash, dress, pray over, and care for the body of each person in our community who dies. Recently I've been pondering a question which is increasingly pressing in my corner of the Jewish community: in the case of someone who chooses cremation, may the work of the chevra kadisha still be performed?

The simplest traditional answer, of course, is "no." Most halakhists will argue that in the traditional paradigm, Judaism forbids cremation. Therefore, taharah (the washing / dressing / blessing of the body) is not performed when someone chooses cremation, because by choosing cremation that person has implicitly opted out of Jewish tradition. There are dissenting voices arguing that it is not so simple -- Rabbi Gershon Winkler, e.g., writes "It is not so absolutely black and white clear that cremation is forbidden by Jewish law" -- but by and large, most traditional sources regard cremation as forbidden, and in many communities after a cremation the mourners are denied the traditional practices of mourning such as shiva and kaddish.

However, an increasing number of Americans today choose cremation, and Jewish Americans are part of that trend. (See More Jews Opt for Cremation, The Forward.) I have complicated feelings about that choice, because I am attached to the "old ways" of Jewish burial, from the biodegradable wooden aron and linen garments (worn by rich and poor alike) to all of the tactile and embodied experiences of casket and shovel and soil. But what I am most attached to is the gentle care of the chevra kadisha. Is there an argument for retaining that gentle care even in cases of cremation?

My Reform community entered into a discernment process last year around the question of burying "cremains" in our cemetery. I shared excerpts from numerous rabbinic responsa (Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox) as our religious practices and cemetery committees discussed this issue. In the end, my community's decision accords with what seems to be mainstream Reform thinking -- that we strongly encourage traditional burial, but we grant our members the right to make their own informed choices even on this matter. (For two very different Reform perspectives on the issue, see Debatable: Is Cremation An Acceptable Practice for Reform Jews? Reform Judaism magazine.) In our cemetery, there is now a separate section where such remains may be interred.

At the OHALAH conference last month, my colleague Rabbi Efraim Eisen offered a précis of his teshuvah (rabbinic responsum) on the burial of cremains. (See my post Real world halakhic issues in a time of paradigm shift.) He noted that the Babylonian Talmud sees cremation as a denial of the belief in resurrection of the dead, and as such, a denial of the dignity of the body and of God Who created the body. I know that many liberal Jews today do not believe in resurrection, and I wonder: how does that change our relationship with this Talmudic teaching? For instance: for someone who resonates with Jewish teachings about reincarnation, rather than the (generally older) Jewish teachings about resurrection, does that change the sense of what cremation means?

Continue reading "On taharah before cremation" »


Following the breath as it comes and goes

Oie_deep_breathThere's something poignant about leading meditation on a morning which will contain a funeral. Following our breath as it comes and goes, knowing that soon we will turn our attention to someone whose breath no longer enlivens.

In Genesis 2 we read that God formed the first human being out of earth and breathed into its nostrils נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים (nishmat chayyim), the breath of life. In modern parlance the Hebrew נֶשַׁמַה (neshamah) is usually translated as "soul."

Every morning we pray  אלהי נשמה שנתת בי טהורה היא (Elohai neshama she-natata bi, tehora hee) -- "My God, the soul which You have placed within me is pure! You created it, you formed it, you breathed it into me, and you will take it from me in a time beyond time..."

My friend Rabbi Arthur Waskow teaches that every breath is a prayer, because with every breath we pronounce the ineffable Name of God.

What is it that enlivens us? It isn't merely breathing, in this age of ventilators which can keep the lungs moving after brain activity has ceased. But without breath, there is no life.

When that enlivening breath is gone, a person's body is no longer that person as we knew them. It remains holy because it once held a soul, but it becomes almost a figurine, a likeness of the person we once knew.

After life, we return our bodies to the adamah, the earth, from which Torah teaches the first earthling was made. The body returns to the earth; the soul-breath returns to the Source from which it came.

I opened and closed this morning's meditation with a practice which I learned from my friend and colleague Rabbi Chava Bahle. The first breath together: a reminder that I am mortal. The second breath together: a reminder that those around me are mortal. The third breath together: a reminder that because of those first two truths, this moment is incomparably precious.

This moment is incomparably precious.

 

Image source: cauldrons and cupcakes.

 


Finding meaning

BIG-DIPPERAt OHALAH, I learn about The December Project, a collaboration between author Sara Davidson and Reb Zalman in which they speak honestly and candidly about aging, death and dying, and the afterlife. I promptly pre-order a copy.

Upon my return home, a woman seeks me out with burning questions about Jewish beliefs around death and dying, burial practices, the afterlife. We have a long conversation in my office and agree to meet again.

Within days of that meeting, a man seeks me out to talk about illness, end-of-life issues, creating programs to help adult children speak (and listen) clearly to the wishes of their aging parents. We, too, agree to meet again.

The human mind seeks to make meaning. Give us a handful of stars in the night sky, and our brains sketch them into the shape of a constellation. Give me three disconnected encounters with questions of aging, dying, and what comes after, and my mind wants to turn them into a pattern.

Does it "mean something" that this theme keeps cropping up in my January?

Maybe this is just a reminder that this is a need which people have, these are conversations which people both fear and crave. Maybe it's just a happy coincidence that I learned about a new resource to share, just before I met someone with whom I wanted to share it. These are disconnected events; they have nothing to do with each other.

And maybe the people who brought these questions into my life this month are messengers whose presence is meant to awaken and attune me to these questions. That's what angels are, in the early parts of Torah: messengers sent by God. They look like ordinary people, but they bring awareness of something that someone needs to know or learn.

Both of those can be true at the same time. Anyone I meet can be a messenger if I'm open to finding a deeper message in our encounter. What looks like happenstance to you might look like a holy encounter to me (or: what I experience as happenstance on one day might feel to me like a holy encounter on another day.) Neither of those interpretations has to trump the other.

The stars of the Big Dipper take on a shape because we see the shape in them. So do moments in a life. Connections and coincidences flare brightly because we notice them and draw lines to connect them.

What meaning will I make from the shape which is coalescing here?

 

 


Two prayers for b'nei mitzvah

Siddur_photo_cover-150x150Maybe because I'm anticipating (and preparing for) a family celebration of bar mitzvah this spring, I've been on the look-out for poems and prayers for that lifecycle moment. At the OHALAH conference, I picked up a display copy of a new siddur which one of my colleagues had brought to show off.  The siddur was Siddur Sha'ar Zahav, a new prayerbook created by Sha'ar Zahav, an LGBTQ Jewish community in San Francisco. And I happened to open it to a page which contained two poems / prayers for b'nei mitzvah, exactly the kind of thing I'd been looking for.

I liked the readings so much that I got online and ordered myself a copy of the siddur right then and there. And here they are:


To A Bar / Bat Mitzvah

I want to tell you a secret, kid.
Although we say today you are an adult,
because the calendar page has turned,
because your age now has two digits,
because you have studied and prayed
and read and written and worried and hoped
to prepare for this, your big day,
your childhood will continue forever in you,
its questions, fears, wonders, dreams, magic.
Though you take on the stature of adulthood,
its responsibilities, powers, doubts, alleged wisdom,
you will always be a child deep inside,
wandering, seeking, finding, losing, finding, loving.

- Rita Losch

 

Remembering the Bar / Bat Mitzvah Problem

Today I am a man.
Today I am a woman.
Today I am mortified.
Bad enough to be growing into this body, but a public celebration of the fact?
Maybe all b'nei mitzvah struggle with identity, rules, clothes, traditions, expectations.
But can anyone see who I am, hidden by make-up, or by a crew cut and tie?

Years and years later, I can say:
Today I am who I am.
Surely Adonai understands that.

- Ray Bernstein

I suspect that the second reading would speak more to the adults in attendance (who remember the slings and arrows of adolescence, as it were) than to the b'nei mitzvah kid. But it really moves me. And I can imagine parents, or an adult in the family, reading the first one aloud as part of the service, or as part of a toast at the kiddush afterwards, or something along those lines.

If (like me) you collect siddurim, this one is really worth owning. It's a beautiful object, a beautiful book, satisfying to hold. It's well-designed and very readable. It treads a nice balance between traditional and innovative. And in addition to fine renderings of all of the prayers one would expect from any good siddur, it also contains prayers and liturgies which aren't in the average Jewish prayerbook -- blessings for discovering one's sexual orientation, prayers for Transgender Day of Remembrance, and so on. The book isn't cheap, but it's well worth the price. I know I'll be turning and returning to it often.


A prayer before departing this life

Water-drop-drop-ripples-art-poster-printOn my first day of hospital chaplaincy training, I was surprised to discover that one needn't be Christian in order to baptize a baby. One need only say the words with intention.

Those of us in my chaplaincy cohort who were Jewish, or Muslim, or came from traditions which don't do infant baptism, had a lot of conversations that year about how we might handle that situation if it came up. Our hospital's policy was that we only provided baptism in cases of extremis, for babies who were near death or too ill to leave the hospital and be baptized in their home community. (My plan was that I would ask the parents if they wanted to say the words, since as Christians they would find the words more meaningful than I, and I would seek to sanctify the moment with my presence.) Though I thought about it and planned for it, I was never called-upon to serve in that way.

But I did have many experiences with those who were dying. On my first day, when I learned that fascinating tidbit about baptism, I also learned that the Catholic sacrament of the sick -- formerly known as "last rites" -- does require a priest. If a Catholic patient were near dying, we were instructed to call the priest on call and get him in there. During the day, there was usually a priest in the hospital with us; overnight, the on-call priest would be elsewhere, though would come if we paged him. I remember one of the hospital's on-call priests teasing us that if we woke him at 2am for someone who turned out to survive until dawn, he was going to be very miffed at us for ruining his sleep. (He was kidding.) And I remember times when I had to call him in the middle of the night. That was the year I began learning about Jewish customs having to do with sickness and death. I'm pretty sure it's when I first encountered the deathbed vidui.

I've written about different forms of the vidui before. "Vidui" means "confessional prayer," and it comes in several forms. There's one version of it intended for daily use, which really speaks to me, and which I try to say every night before bed. There's another kind of vidui which we say on Yom Kippur. And then there's the one which the tradition instructs us to recite before death. Though there's nothing wrong with saying it at a different time. If needed, the prayer can be recited more than once. There's no superstition attached to it, it's not as though saying it "too soon" will somehow bring death sooner, there's nothing wrong with saying it and then surviving and getting to say it again another day. What the tradition teaches is, when death is imminent (whatever that means to you), it's appropriate for the ill person (or someone else on his/her behalf) to offer a vidui. Here's the version of that prayer which is found in the Reform Rabbi's Manual:

Deathbed Vidui

My God and God of all who have gone before me, Author of life and death, I turn to You in trust. Although I pray for life and health, I know that I am mortal. If my life must soon come to an end, let me die, I pray, at peace.

If only my hands were clean and my heart pure! I confess that I have committed sins and left much undone, yet I know also the good that I did or tried to do. May my acts of goodness give meaning to my life, and may my errors be forgiven.

Protector of the bereaved and the helpless, watch over my loved ones. Into Your hand I commit my spirit; redeem it, O God of mercy and truth.

  יְיָ מֶֽלֶךְ, יְיָ מַלַך, יְיָ יִמְלֹך לְעוֹלָם וַעֵד / Adonai melech Adonai malach Adonai yimloch l’olam va’ed.
(God reigns; God has reigned; God will reign forever and ever.)

בָּרוּךְ שֵׁם כְּבוֹד מַלְכוּתוֹ לְעוֹלָם וָעֶד. / Baruch shem k’vod malchuto l’olam va’ed.
(Blessed be God’s name whose glorious dominion is forever.) 

שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל, יְיָ אֱלֹהֵינוּ, יְיָ אֶחָֽד: Shema Yisrael Adonai eloheinu Adonai echad.
(Hear, O Israel: Adonai is our God, Adonai is One.)

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Some of this work's greatest blessings

It is a tremendous blessing to me every time I am able to walk alongside someone who is on the mourner's path.

To sit down in someone's kitchen or living room and let them tell me stories.

To give them a safe space in which to open the faucet and let their memories begin to pour forth.

To keep company with the family as they accompany their loved one as far as they can go.

To invite them into the painful and powerful tradition of shoveling earth onto the casket with our own hands.

To bless them that they should be consoled along with the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem, and along with all who mourn.

To walk alongside them, to offer a listening ear and a welcoming heart.

To pray with them, letting the familiar cadences of the mourner's kaddish work in and through them.

To remember how precious this life is, and how unknown is the Mystery which follows.

 

I don't do this work in order to be more mindful of my own life, my own loved ones, but I am always reminded.

I remember how fortunate I am that my own loved ones are still here.

It is sobering to glimpse, at a distance, the path we all walk someday.

 

As Shabbat approaches, may all mourners find comfort. May we welcome them into our communities with kindness and understanding. May we tend their fragility more lovingly than we would tend our own.


A poem after a summer funeral

FUNERAL AFTER TISHA B'AV


The windshield wipers sway from side to side
like whip-thin Hasidim shuckeling in prayer.

I traverse Silver and Old Orebed, roads named
after gashes in the flesh of the earth.

When the clouds relent, I lead the pallbearers
and their purple-draped cargo: two steps, pause.

Two steps, pause. Seven stops in all, one
for each day of the first week of creation.

Sweat beads on my back inside my black suit
like the water pooling atop the funeral home tent.

On behalf of a woman I never knew I ask forgiveness
and offer it in turn, untying her tangles.

We stand in silence as the shovels spear the dirt
and send it thudding down like arhythmic drums.

 

 


 

Bury-you-dead-dirt-shovelIt's customary to make seven stops on the way to the graveside. Explanations for this practice vary.

When I lead funerals, I recite the deathbed vidui on behalf of the person who has died. Tradition says that the soul of the deceased lingers until burial. Reciting the vidui may be a way of helping that soul to let go.

At Jewish funerals, the mourners always begin filling in the grave -- either with handfuls of soil, or with shovels. Some have the custom of using the shovel upside-down, because burying a loved one shouldn't be easy.

I'm always grateful to have the opportunity to serve at a funeral. There is something incredibly meaningful for me about being able to do this work.


At an unveiling, a moment of grace

First I was distracted because I didn't have a cemetery map.

There's a custom in Jewish tradition of having an unveiling of the matzevah, the grave marker / headstone, usually a year after burial. I was privileged to do an unveiling this weekend -- my first, actually, so I'd spent some time in recent weeks reading up on the ceremony and how it evolved. I felt certain that I had put together good materials (including R' Brant Rosen's beautiful interpretation of Psalm 23). But I realized, when I woke this morning, that I wasn't exactly certain where in our cemetery I would find this headstone. I should have thought of it sooner, but I was so focused on the ritual that I forgot to think about the physical place in which the ritual would unfold. Grumbling at myself, I went to shul early to look for a cemetery map.

I thought I knew where such a map would be. I was wrong. And I had just finished my search for the map when my cellphone rang. It was my husband, calling to ask where his carseat was. I clapped my hand to my mouth, realizing all in a flash: oh, no, it was in my car, with me. I had driven away with both carseats. I'd had the spare one in the back of the car in case it was needed for our son's most recent playdate, and I'd forgotten to remove it. And by the time he called, I needed to dash to the cemetery to stroll the aisles in search of the headstone which needed to be dedicated. There was nothing I could do; he and our son would be stuck at home until I was done. I grumbled at myself some more.

When I arrived at the cemetery my distraction took a partial backseat to beauty. We're having a spectacular May weekend. All the trees are bursting into unbelievable chartreuse leaf. The grass at our cemetery is carpeted with tiny violets. I could hear a rooster crowing nearby. The horses stabled across the street whinnied and snorted. And, thank God, I found the headstone right away, and was able to drape it with a white linen cloth before the family arrived. Once people started arriving, I was able to focus on them; the morning's distractions and my exasperation with myself receded into a dull buzz at the back of my consciousness.

But what really shook me out of my distraction and brought me square into the present moment was the music. The daughter of the deceased stood before his stone and sang L'dor vador. "From generation to generation we shall tell of Your greatness..." Her voice was pure and quavered slightly. Time slowed down, and I could feel that moment as a pause, a pearl, strung in a string of moments stretching back to time immemorial and forward forever. The whole world seemed hushed and still, listening. The words come from the daily amidah prayer, and the song evokes our generations -- what connects us to our ancestors, and to our children -- the melodies, the heritage, the love which bind us to each other and to our tradition. By the time she had finished singing, my day was transformed.

It's those little moments of grace which make everything worthwhile. They can't be planned or presumed-upon; they come when they come. I don't know if she knew she was giving me such a gift, but she did. I am endlessly grateful.


The daughter who sang so gloriously was Gloria Lenhoff. She's the subject of the PBS documentary Bravo Gloria; you can hear her on YouTube, though not singing "L'dor Vador." For more: For woman with Williams Syndrome, music was the key.


Things I love about b'nei mitzvah

I love the excited buzz in the synagogue before Shabbat morning services when one of our kids is going to be called to the Torah as b'nei mitzvah.

I love the eager, nervous energy I feel emanating from the family. The parents, caught between the mundane organizational details they were worrying about yesterday and the growing awareness that today is something different, a different kind of time. The younger sibling, if there is one, rolling their eyes but also realizing that this is going to be them someday.

I love standing outside in the field behind our sanctuary, listening to the wild tapestry of birdsong, while the photographer adjusts: you put your arm around her, there, okay, turn a little bit this way, look at me, smile! The family always makes such a beautiful tableau, and I know they'll look at these photographs for the rest of their lives.

I love running through the Torah portion with the bat mitzvah girl one last time before services begin. Her voice is a little bit higher, her pace faster, today than ever before. By now I've practiced chanting this Torah portion with her so many times that I know it by heart, too.

I love the feeling of standing before the assembled community -- members of our congregation; our small core of Shabbat morning regulars; visiting family and friends -- and welcoming them into this place and this moment, this celebration of Shabbat and this celebration of a young person taking their place in our community.

I love inviting anyone who's never seen the inside of a Torah scroll up to the bimah, and unrolling it. Asking them to say, aloud, what makes it different from the books they usually read. It's in Hebrew; it's on parchment; it's a scroll; it's handwritten. Then I point out things they might not have noticed: there's no punctuation. There are no vowels. There are no musical notations.

I love seeing one of our kids shine. Hearing them read from Torah, and offer blessings, and teach something of what they've learned to the entire congregation.

I love hearing the blessing the parent(s) offer. Without fail, hearing the earnest words of love and pride they offer to their child is one of the most moving moments of my day, and reminds me of my own place in the chain of generations, between my parents and my son.

And I love chatting with people after the service, finding out what moved them and what spoke to them. It can be hard for me to gauge, when a lot of people have assembled who maybe aren't necessarily singing along, whether the service is reaching them. But every time, I hear from someone who didn't expect to be moved, or who didn't expect the service to be accessible, and was pleasantly surprised.

Mostly I love knowing that we've co-created a beautiful memory for the new young adult and for their family, and that our community is now one adult Jew richer.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, source of all being, who has kept us alive, and sustained us, and enabled us to reach this moment.


Daily April poem: lifecycle event

BAR MITZVAH


The family huddles close together.
The mountain beams, now devoid of snow.
The tasseled fringes of prayer shawls flutter.

The photographer calls encouragement --
turn toward him, that's right; adjust
the lapel, good, now smile, look at me

-- and all I can imagine is our own son
awkward and gangly at thirteen, draped
in a loose and flowing brand-new tallit

the opposite of the swaddling blankets
we pulled tight around his flailing limbs
just now before I blinked my teary eyes.

 


 

I wrote this poem on a Shabbat afternoon after presiding over the bar mitzvah of a young man in my congregation. I've been part of many b'nei mitzvah ceremonies before, but this was the first bar mitzvah I've done since our son was born, and the realization that someday it'll be our kid up there was poignant for me.

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