Thursday, April 28, 2011

God is in the Moment

Ritual can be very comforting.  I sat with an eight-year-old today as she prepared to bury her father discussing why we cut kriah (the tear in our clothes or a ribbon worn at the death of an immediate relative).  I also got to hold her doll for a bit.  The doll is as much part of her ritual as the cutting would be.  This doll (I believe her name is Sarah) visited Michael (the father) in the hospital.  She will accompany the family to Camp Ramah this summer, and Israel, as the family goes to celebrate a bat mitzvah.  Sarah knows all the places Michael told the kids to visit.

Later, I watched this same eight-year-old bury her father.  It should have been gut-wrentching, but it wasn't.  There she was, holding a shovel along with three other girls her age.  Together they had embraced the ritual, and were fulfilling this last mitzvah together.  Somehow, together, standing at the edge of the grave, these girls transformed ritual action into healing, an act of selfless care for a father lost, and an act of support and comfort for a friend in need.  They were some of the first shovelling, and they were the last, scrapping even the last grains of soil into the grave (just to make sure it was done right).

Even later I sat with this family and asked if there was any message they wanted sent to their classes, where I'd be speaking in the morning.  The message, just come and be.  It's the ritual of shiva that so few know.  As adults, we try to fill the emptiness.  We try to help.  We are supposed to come, to sit, and to just wait.  I hope the message can get from the children to their parents.

As we were leaving our oldest suggested that our havurah all come to help get the family up from shiva.  He felt we're their community, and as such we all need to be there.  He's right, and sometimes so wise.

God is in these moments, and God is in these children.

Hamakom yinachem otam btoch sha'ar avlei Tzion vIrushalyim.  May God comfort them among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem (and us too).

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A Life Lived In Action

We buried a friend today.  Michael was 44 years old.  His 3 children are the ages of our 3 children.  And, I miss him.  First I want to say- Cancer sucks.  It simply does.  It robs people of time together.  Still, through cancer, Michael taught me and other so much.  He took the time to be Dad during his last days.  He took the time to be Miriam's partner.  And amazingly, he took the time to be friend.

I was just rereading my blurb for Kedoshim, and it made me think of him.  Michael was always the one with a smile.  He sought to live a holy life and he succeeded.  He taught through action, not only his children, but everyone around him.  He emulated God's actions by being present in this world up to the very end.

Tonight, at his home, Michael's eldest daughter handed me a homemade business card.  She, along with friends (Her business partners whom she informed me are not mourners) are knitting to raise money for cancer research.  All proceeds from their sales will go to the Israel Cancer Research Fund.  She's going to make sure they cure cancer in her lifetime.  She is doing this not out of anger at losing her family, but inspiration for a life lived through action, a life lived by her father the mentsch, who believed that if you believed in something you did more than write a check, you devoted your self to that thing.  It's a lesson we all could learn.

Michael did this with so much.  He made sure to share his thoughts, hopes, and dreams with Miriam and the children.  In the future, while there will always be a hole, they will not have to wonder what their father would have said.  He has told them already.  His physical presence is gone, but his influence will be with us always.


Parashat Kedoshim starts off “And God spoke to Moshe saying, ‘Speak to all of the community of Israel, and say to them “Kedoshim tihyu, ki kadosh Ani, Hashem Ehloheikhem.” (You will be holy, because I, Hashem your God, am holy.)’”

“Kedoshim tihyu…” This is phrased in the plural; “You will [all] be holy…” Holiness is incumbent upon all of us within our community. What follows is a fascinating collection of mitzvot mostly addressing an individual’s interaction with others in the community. For the Torah there is no separation between the sacred and the profane. Every action, not just mitzvot, brings us the opportunity for holiness. Holiness goes well beyond the mitzvot. It is possible to fulfill all the mitzvot, and still not enter the realm of holiness; a separation between religiousness and observance. Holiness requires both. Jewish tradition teaches “Im ain kemach, ain Torah.” Literally this means “if there is no flour, there is no Torah.” If we only focus upon what we see as sacred actions or mitzvot then we miss the point. There can be no holiness without a balance in life.

What is equally fascinating in parashat Kedoshim is the repetition, no less than seventeen times, of “Ani Hashem;” “I am God.” Within those seventeen reminders, seven times God reminds us that God is “Hashem Ehloheichem,” “Hashem is your [our] God.” From this one can extrapolate that the actions, the mitzvot, listed in the parasha are also connected to God. As human beings we are made b’tzeslem Ehlohim, in the image of God. How can one be made in the image of a being without form or likeness? We know God through God’s actions, the presence of God we sense in the world. To be in God’s image we must follow in God’s actions, creating a holy presence in the world. After all, Hashem Ehloheichem.

Shabbat Pesach

“We were slaves of Pharaoh in Mitzraiyim, and the Eternal our God brought us out from there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. If the Holy One Blessed Be He had not taken our ancestors from Mitzraiyim, even we, our children, and our children’s children might still have been enslaved to Pharaoh in Mitzraiyim.”

We read these words at each seder. This is a theme that informs the Jewish calendar and our lives as Jews. “Because of what God did for me when I was a slave in Mitzraiyim” or “”in memory of the exodus from Mitzraiyim” are the reasons for our rituals and recited in our t’fillot. Why did God redeem this generation? Why now did God hear the cries of the people? Because, in this generation individuals were willing to stand up and take the steps towards redemption. This collective memory of oppression and redemption is the formative concept for us as Jews. The Jewish year takes us through the cycle from exodus to Sinai to our wanderings in the midbar. Jewish history has reenacted the theme of oppression and redemption over and over again. As a people, this has led us to fight for freedom for ourselves and for others. Jews have been at the forefront of labour movements and the fight for civil rights, and Jews continue to devote their voices, time, and money to the fight for freedom today.

But there’s more. There is an old Jewish joke, “They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat.” Throughout all of history, Jews have not only fought against oppression and hatred, we have celebrated our victories. It is not the victory over others, but the victory over hatred and oppression. We celebrate because we know it could have been different. We know because we live it. We live it as a collective memory; we live it through history, and we live it each and every day.

Our seder ends with “L’shana haba’ah birushalayim.” For many, it is a time to sing “Ani Ma’amin,” I believe. I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the messiah. And even though he tarries, I still believe. In the meantime, we will keep waiting. We will keep working towards this peace, and we will keep singing and celebrating.

Achrei Mot & Politics

The parshiyot at the end of Vayikra examine issues of tuma, impurity, toharah, ritual purity, approaching God, and holiness. All of these concepts are interconnected. You cannot draw close to God without holiness and purity. Yet even coming close to God can make one impure.

Akhrei Mot, begins after the death of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, who died when they drew too close to God. The parasha continues, describing the Yom Kippur rite of the scapegoat, an expiation meant to purify the people Israel. To fulfill this ritual, Aaron must first be spiritually pure. The state one occupies when approaching God is of utmost importance. Without such purity all involved are at risk.

When people approach God with impurity, without modesty, as if they alone hold the knowledge of what is right, without thought of others or of God, they risk us all. When individuals call upon Divine power to do their bidding, whether claiming the one true religion or an individual Divine right over all others, it is not holy and pure, but hurtful and evil. As with Nadav and Avihu, who were consumed from within, the idea of Divine power can eat away at one’s humanity and his/her ability to see the humanity of others.

We have seen much politicing and mudslinging over the past few weeks. Let us hope that once in power that our leaders choose to lead with a spirit of purity, and not allow the power with which we invest them to consume them from within.

Parsha blogging

I'm now writing the parasha blurb for the shul each week.  Hopefully, I'll remember to post also.  I started with Tazria, already a month ago, but of course that's on the other computer, so it's not getting posted.  It's one of the problems of multiple computers in the house.  We desperately need to network the computers.  I tend to use whatever one is available (4 laptops and a desktop now), but then never know where my material is.

So there I am.  My Tazria and Metzora blurbs are on another computer.  The networking is not done, and I cannot share.  Wonderfully, there's always next year.  It's a great and humbling thing about the Torah.  We read the same thing every year, but it never gets old.  Lessons learned can be learned again.  New lessons pop up just when you think you've run dry.  Hafokh bah, v'hafokh ba, ki kula ba; turn it over and over for all is within in.  I guess that's just one more reason I love being a rabbi.