Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Gift of Mourning

February, eighteen years ago, Matthew Eisenstadt and his girlfriend Sarah Duker, students at the Jewish Theological Seminary were murdered by a Palestinian terrorist who blew up the bus they were riding. I was thinking about them recently. It was not their yahrzeit that specifically reminded me. It was not the horror of their deaths. It was not anger nor a desire for revenge that brought them to mind. It was peace. I was standing at the Pardes Shalom cemetery beside an open grave. We had driven out ahead of the procession, and arrived early. I stood there, contemplating the quiet peace of the cemetery and the burial that was about to occur. I thought about the weight of the mitzvah of burial. When Matthew and Sarah died, the Seminary community rallied. There was support for the mourners, both friends and family, but there was an interesting sense of obligation. We, their peers, would do this last deed for them.

I have spent many years working in interfaith environments. I have come in contact with rituals and practices from many other religious groups. I cannot say Judaism is not perfect, nor is it the right religion for everyone. I can say that this is one area we do best. The requirement of burial, not just by ensuring it will happen, but by physically yielding the shovel is beautiful. It is a selfless deed we can do for someone who can never repay us. It is like a final embrace for the person we loved, the person who is no longer with us.

I remember standing at Matthew’s and Sarah’s graves. They were buried side by side. Dozens and dozens of fellow students and friends stepped forward to do this last deed for them and for their parents. Some knew them well. Some were mere acquaintances, and others, not at all.Still each person anxious to help in whatever small way was possible.

There is no sound more final than that of the first shovelful of soil hitting a coffin. It’s a push to begin the business of mourning. It’s a final goodbye. It changes us. It’s the moment when, even for the most stoic, the tears begin to flow, and it’s the moment the business shifts from taking care of the deceased to taking care of the mourner. We talk of this mitzvah as being totally selfless, but it isn’t. There is also beauty in the filling of the grave. It is the beauty that comes through the expression of love. It is a beauty that can lead to peace.

There is a trend in the Jewish world to limit how much we do. It’s not a new trend. Long ago we shifted from tearing a piece of clothing to wearing a ribbon. Many chose not to fill in the grave, but only to cover the casket. The rules of Shloshim and Shanah are barely known, let alone observed. Shiva hours and private shivas are becoming commonplace. Each of these things damages the process. I have long wondered about the cause. Are we so afraid of death or of showing weakness that we shy away from anything that may show us in a difficult moment? Are we so determined to appear stoic that we cannot let others do for us? Death and Shiva require us to let others do for us. We are not the hosts of a party. We are there to be comforted and carried on the shoulders of our family, our friends, and our community. For just a short blink in the years of our lives, we are to put pride and  ego aside, and allow ourselves to be supported by others rather than being the support of others.

It is a gift of Judaism to cause us to learn this, for ourselves and for those around us. It’s a lesson I have learned many times. Not yet as a primary mourner, but as a secondary mourner, as a rabbi, and as a comforter, and a lesson I will be grateful to learn many more times in my life. 

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

I've Done It Again-

Posting seems to be an art. There's much to say, much to share, but they days escape me. I try to keep up with the postings, at least the parshiyot, and then it suddenly breaks down.  So tonight I posted three weeks. I have notes for postings- "My 'Don't Laugh at Me' Moment" and "School For the Gifted" are two examples.  Unfortunately I can't remember what the "School For the Gifted" was supposed to be. "School For the Gifted" was a great "Far Side" cartoon by Gary Larson (, which showed  the Midvale School For The Gifted door, clearly marked "pull" with a student desperately pushing.  I had a moment like that last week.  What's really sad is that I cannot now remember what I was doing that was so "gifted."

Usually when Sean's away I write less, but am hoping to maybe catch up.  We'll see. Tomorrow is a sick day. I, and my 3 wonderful children, are all sick, and will all be home together.  Yeah! That's so conducive to getting healthy.  However, hopefully it will be conducive to writing.

Until tomorrow...

Parashat Pekudey- Encountering the Divine

Ki anan A-donai al hamishkan yomam v’eish tihyeh leilah bo l’einei khol beit-Yisrael b’khol-mas’eihem.
For the cloud of A-donai was on the Tabernacle by day, and the fire was there at night, in the sight of the entire house of Israel in all their journeys. (Shmot 40:38)
Thus ends the book of Shemot. Hazak; hazak; v’nit’hazayk. Be strong; be strong, and we will strengthen each other. Thus ends the narrative of slavery. We came out of Egypt a downtrodden people, but we will became strong. We are to be a kingdom of priests, to become more numerous than the sands of the seas or the stars of the heavens. We will become a community of judges and of artists, of law and of beauty. How are we to do this?
These clouds burned with the fires of God within, to be seen at night, but also as a reminder of God’s glory burning within. It illuminates and guides us, but it can also burn us. Moshe glowed so brightly after his close encounter with the Divine that he had to be covered with a veil as he moved within the community. To encounter the Divine presence is beautiful and enlightening, but it can also be overwhelming.
The Rabbis taught: Four entered the Pardes. They were Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Acher and Rabbi Akiva*. Rabbi Akiva said to them, "When you come to the place of pure marble stones, do not say, 'Water! Water!' for it is said, 'He who speaks untruths shall not stand before My eyes' (Psalms 101:7)". Ben Azzai gazed and died. Regarding him the verse states, 'Precious in the eyes of G-d is the death of His pious ones' (Psalms 116:15). Ben Zoma gazed and was harmed [went insane]. Regarding him the verse states, 'Did you find honey? Eat as only much as you need, lest you be overfilled and vomit it' (Proverbs 25:16). Acher cut down the plantings [became an apostate]. Rabbi Akiva entered in peace and left in peace. (Talmud Haggigah)
What could this have to do with our parasha? How we encounter the Divine Presence matters. It is not scholarship or wisdom that guides us or protects us. Perhaps it is openness to God or an acceptance of that which we do not know. That the Torah does not end here, but continues through Vayikra and D’varim stresses the need to always move forward, to always learn. Rabbi Akiva certainly understood that. An ignorant and illiterate shepherd, he began his learning at age 40 after realizing the power of erosion. It is slow, but if water can penetrate rock, than each of us can be penetrated, however slowly by the mitzvot and the Divine Presence. And so, even if all of us were wise, all of us understanding, all of us knowing the Torah, we would still be obligated to discuss the exodus from Egypt; and everyone [whether a scholar, a wise person, or a layman] who discusses the exodus from Egypt at length is praiseworthy.

* These were four great scholars of the Talmud.

Parashat Vayakhel- We Are Holy

Sheishet yamim tei’a’se melakha uvayom hashvi’i yiyeh lakhem kodesh Shabbat shabbaton lA-donai…
Six days you shall melakha, and on the seventh you will have a holy day, a Shabbat of rest to the Lord… (Shemot 35:2)
Just last Shabbat someone commented to me, “I’m supposed to rest on Shabbat, but I can’t do the things I find relaxing.” This stems from an attempt to understand halakhah in English terms. “Six days you shall work, and on the seventh you will have a holy day, a Shabbat of rest to the Lord.” It’s the word “work” that gets us in trouble. In every translation there is a commentary, an interpretation of the text that cannot fully encompass the original meaning of the words. While it’s true that the word melakha means work, melakha refers to a very specific category of work. Hebrew has melakha, avodah, peulah, esek, la’amol, and even asakah. Each of these refers to a type of activity. In English too: work, toil, effort, exertion, labour, action, and more. And, as in Hebrew, each of these words has a slightly different meaning.
There are 39 categories of melakha.  Each of these categories refers to an act related to the construction of the Mishkan. Each of these is also a creative act. Melakha also appears in Breishit. “Va’y’khal Elohim bayom hashvi’i m’lakhto asher asa vayishbot bayom hashvi’i mikol-m’lakhto asher asa. Va’y’varekh Elohim et yom hashvi’i va’y’kadeish oto ki vo shavat mikol-m’lakhto asher-bara Elohim la’asot.” “On the seventh day God finished all the work that God had been doing, and God ceased, on the seventh day, from all the work God had done.” (Breishit 2:2-3) In observing Shabbat, we embrace the concept of b’tzelem Elohim, being in the image of God. This is not an easy task. It is not human nature to stop when you’re on a roll. The Vilna Gaon taught that when God ceased work on the seventh day, the world was unfinished. This is a lesson for us to put our unfinished work aside and leave the world as it is to observe Shabbat.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation, from the world of creation to the creation of the world.” For those who have not observed Shabbat regularly, putting aside melakha is not only daunting it is stressful. It takes effort and practice to re-envision how we spend our time. To unplug, thus leaving the world as it is, for 25 hours, leaves many individuals feeling adrift or pointless, unable to connect. Instead, they need to connect to that which exists in time rather than in space. Relationships become more important that actions, real communication more important than the passing on of information. The sacred becomes more important than the profane. Together then, we are not objects; we are beings b’tzelem Elohim. We are not purposeless. We are holy.

Parashat Ki Tissa- Count Us As One

Ki Tissa et-rosh b’nei-Yisrael lifkudeihem v’natnu ish kofer nafsho lA-donai bifkod otam v’lo-yiyeh bahem nefesh bifkod otam.
When you count the heads of the children of Israel according to their number, every man will give a ransom for his soul to God when he numbers them, that there be no plague among them when you number them. (Shemot 30:12)
There is a Jewish custom not to count people. We are somehow worried that if we count we will somehow bring bad luck upon us. A verse in this week’s parasha plays that out. “Every man will give a ransom… [so] that there be no plague.” The implication being that if we do count, either without God’s command, or by regular numbering. The prophet Hosea reminds us that we are to be as numerous as the sands of the sea, and therefore uncountable. Throughout the generations we have devised all sorts of interesting methods. We use p’sukim. The poteach verse in Ashrei is seven. We use letters: aleph, bet, gimel…. We count not one, not two, not three.
Halakhot regarding counting allow counting body parts, the heads in our parasha or even noses. Some permit counting if done silently in your mind. This leads to modern issues of how to conduct a census in Israel. One argument is that the census counts written names instead of people. Another is that a census is of a population of mixed individuals, not only Jews, and so does not fall under the prohibition.
The question of why continues to stand. One opinion in Panim Yafot, a commentary on the Humash by Rabbi Pinchas HaLevy Horowitz, explains that Jews are best when we are unified. As a unit we are connected to God as our Source and our Creator, and when unified we do not need further protection. When we are separated, we are subject to scrutiny and difficulties. Our history plays this out. The Temples were destroyed because of sinat chinam, senseless hatred of Jew against Jew. When someone like Bernie Madoff takes advantage of the most vulnerable among his own people, everyone suffers.

Abraham Lincoln stated it more succinctly, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” We should remember that we are at our best when united. Dissention is damaging. It produces discord and strife. However, the ability to speak up within the community, knowing our opinions will be respected is vital. Openness and honest sharing instead leads to strength of body and purpose. Together we can build a stronger community connected to our Divine purpose.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Hugo Versus Doctor Who

Today is my day to blog about things past.  November was Gavi's hockey game. December was the ice storm, about which I've already written. January was Les Mis.

We are a family that loves theater and music. Les Miserables is a wonderful combination of the two. The kids have listened to the original London soundtrack for a number of years on long car rides. Last year we saw the movie. For much of this school year, Gavi and Keren have woken to duelling musicals. Gavi wakes to Man of La Mancha. Keren to Les Mis, although she's recently switched to a great mix she put together. We even looked into Keren auditioning, but she's too tall.  It was for the best, since we'd have had to wait on her braces if she'd gotten the roll, and she had an issue that really needed attention.

Anyway, we very much wanted to take the kids to Cats and Les Mis this year. Cats is masterful in stage and makeup, and we thought they'd be fascinated. Alas, tickets were simply too dear in a year of two b'nei mitzvah and braces. Even Les Mis was a stretch, but the kids decided to use the Hanukah gelt they received to off-set the cost. We were off and running.

When we arrived at the theatre, and Sean and the boys started combining song lyrics from very different shows (okay, mostly Sean, but the boys joined in). It started with "Don't Cry For Me Argentina" but devolved into "I Got the Horse Right Here."

We had to stress to the kids, repeatedly, that a show is not a sing-a-long. Keren still lip-synched. The best was the amazing high they all had at the end.

Sean suggested we go to the stage door to wait and meet the actors.  Everyone was in favor except Keren. She, oddly said, "I just want to go home and watch Dr. Who." She loved the show no less, but being done with Hugo, she now wanted to indulge in her new obsession- the Who universe. We did go to the stage door. We did collect autographs. She was very happy to have them, and keeps her program in her room, but may have missed some of the excitement due to her Whovian desires. Maybe someday she'll grow up to act as one of the Doctor's companions. I hope for her sake it's still running. I expect it may be. Hugo is great in small doses, but Dr. Who lasts forever.

?????- Penalties I Don't Get, belated

In November Gavi and I attended the Leafs/Islanders hockey game. Gavi had been given tickets as a bar mitzvah gift, and knowing our fandom, it could be no game other than the Isles.

At first Sean, who once referred to the puck drop at center field, suggested that since I'd already accompanied the boys to a few games it was his turn. He was kidding, of course, but it didn't matter. There was no way I was letting Isles tickets out of my grasp.

Gavi and I suited up in our Islanders gear and headed down to the ACC. Surprisingly we saw other Isles fans on the subway. Toronto has so many transplants, that we weren't alone in our orange and blue.

It was an interesting evening. About 30 seconds in the Leafs scored.  This did not bode well for the night, and, yes, the Isles did lose. They played a great skating game, out-shooting the Leafs significantly, 37-24.  However, Bernier was really amazing, and the Isles defense exceptionally poor.

Three things surprised me that night. One was an amazing penalty against the Isles totally missed by the refs. An Islander player was down on the ice, and as he kneeled to get up, a Leafs player skated by and pushed him back down to the ice by placing his hand on the downed-player's back and shoving.  This was almost immediately followed by the second amazing thing. The ref called a penalty against the Islanders of "shooting a stick." I have never seen this penalty called. If a player throws his stick towards the puck to interfere with play, it is a penalty. In this case, another player's stick was actually kicked towards the puck, and looked accidental.  The call was so ridiculous that all those seated around us were equally confused by the call.

But the most surprising moment came after the game. I was waiting outside the men's room for Gavi, and ended up standing with a woman in her mid 20's. Turns out this was her first professional hockey game ever, even though she'd grown up in Toronto. We had a very nice discussion. At the end she said, "Sorry your team lost." Reasonable trash talk, even among fans, is part of the game. I'd have expected no comment or a friendly rival's jab, but this honest caring for my disappointment was a lovely way to end the evening. I hope she goes to a lot more games, and speaks to a lot more people.

Gavi and I eventually headed home, talking about the frustrating penalties and the 22-second goal, until he started falling asleep on my shoulder. A perfect night with my son.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Parashat Tetzaveh- Hiddur Mitzvah

V’asita bigdei-kodesh l’Aharon achikha l’khavod ul’tif’aret.
And you will make sacred garments for Aharon, your brother, for honour and for splendour. (Shemot 28:2)
At Har Sinai the Israelites went through a crucible. In it they were transformed from scared slaves running from their oppressors to a new-formed unified people. As they emerge, with their changed focus, they not only work to create a new system of government, a new system of leadership, but one that goes beyond the merely functional. The Mikdash described last week, and the garments worn for service therein, are not only things of function, but of beauty. It’s an interesting twist. A crucible is never easy. It is a transformation through extreme difficulty. It burns you, but through it you are reborn into a new body, a new form. It makes you harder and stronger. It came help you to focus. Focus can often bring simplicity. It can cause you to look for the most streamlined means to your end. In this light, it would have been easier for God to command simplicity. A simple tent and wooden altar and plain robes would have sufficed. A tight focus on the observance of the mitzvot alone would have allowed us to fulfill the letter of the laws given. But instead, we are to seek beauty. In parashat Beshallach, in the Song of the Sea, Moshe says, “Zeh Eili v’anveihu, Elohei avi va’arom’menhu.” “This is my God and I will glorify Him; My God is my father’s and I will exalt Him.” (Shemot 15:2) The Rabbis linked this to the building of the Mikdash. Rabbi Ishmael asked, “How can a human glorify an ineffable God?” We do so by glorifying our observance of the mitzvot. We delve into our hearts to make use of the talents with which God has blessed us, creating objects and garments that will not only be functional, but that will adorn the person or place with honour and with splendour. We give what we can, whether in money, in items, or in work. In modern times this translates into donations and volunteering. It is the time we spend on synagogue, school and organization boards and committees. It is our attendance at t’fillot, events and programs. It is making the synagogue a beautiful and welcoming place that it’s worth dressing up to go to. It is sharing our joy and love of Jewish holiday and custom with family and friends, children and grandchildren.