To Pray for Healing is to be Human

 

Below is the text of my Rosh Hashanah morning sermon delivered to the beautiful souls of Temple Beth Shalom, Austin.

Once upon a time, Rabbi Ishmael and Rabbi Akiba were strolling in the streets of Jerusalem. They noticed someone who was visibly ill and they went up to him. The sick person said, “my teachers, please, rabbis, how can I be healed?” They gave him some advice on how to get better. The sick person asked them, “who made me sick?” They replied, “the Holy One of Blessing.” The sick man responded, “God made me sick? And you have the cure? You are out of your league.”

Rabbi Akiba and Rabbi Ishmael asked him, “what is your occupation?” The sick man answered, “I’m a farmer, here is my sickle.” The rabbis asked him, “who created the vineyard?” “The Holy One of Blessing,” the sick man answered. Rabbi Akiba and Rabbi Ishmael said to him, “You created the vineyard? God created vineyard and you take from it.”

The man with illness said, “did you not see the sickle in my hand? If I did not plow, sow, fertilize, and weed, nothing would sprout.”

Rabbi Akiba and Rabbi Ishmael said to him, “Foolish man!… Just as if one does not weed, fertilize, and plow, the trees will not produce fruit, and if fruit is produced and is not watered or fertilized, it will not live but die, so with the human body. Drugs and medicines are the fertilizer, and the physician is the tiller of the soil.[i]

Since the dawn of time, including the time of Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ishmael the 2nd century of the common era, healing and the healing arts have been part of life. Perhaps it is innate in the biology of our species to heal ailments, and maybe even more significantly, to help another human being to return to health if that is possible.

Illness and disease have been and remain a part of life. Ailments big and small, chronic, fatal, and short-term are part of the reality of being a human. Widespread contagions are nothing new, our world has known epidemics before: in the year 430 B.C.E., not long after a war between Athens and Sparta, Athens was ravaged by an epidemic.[ii] The Black Death of the 14th century was estimated to have killed half the population of Europe as the disease ravaged Europe and Asia.[iii] We’ve started to learn more about the Spanish Flu that afflicted the world just as the first World War ended, and in more recent history we can recall H1N1 Swine Flu, polio, Ebola, and the ongoing AIDS epidemic. We now add Covid-19 to this list and this pandemic is weighing on our hearts, minds, and spirits, as we celebrate and mark this new year.

Covid-19 has forced us to change our lives in so many ways. We don’t leave our houses without masks, who knows when we might shake someone’s hand when we meet them for the first time, and I don’t know about you, but I am acutely aware of six feet of distance when I am making necessary supply runs or taking a walk in my neighborhood. We have also been reminded of the wisdom of our Jewish tradition, more people are observing Shabbat mark time, and adults are flocking to online learning opportunities, especially Jewish content, in droves. Jewish tradition also offers us the wisdom of praying for healing.

As long as there has been illness, Jews have prayed for healing. Rabbi Dr. William Cutter teaches in his book Healing and the Jewish Imagination, “It is certain that our bodies do not last forever, and that they can’t even do everything we want during their physical lifetime. This condition makes life difficult and interesting, and it is a condition that has created much of the search for healing in Jewish tradition.”[iv]

Judaism has long engaged in all aspects of healing, from strange remedies described in the Talmud to prayers for healing. It is Moses who utters a healing blessing for his sister Miriam when he utters, “el na r’fa na la,” “God, pray, heal her, pray,”[v] in the book of Numbers. We know that in addition to being one of the greatest writers on Jewish law and philosophy, Maimonides was the court physician to sultan Saladin.[vi] And there are at least 20 mediocre to terrible jokes I could tell about a parent who wishes for their child to become a doctor or marry a doctor.

Jews pray for healing all the time in formal and informal ways. In the weekday Amidah there is a daily benediction for healing. We say, “refaeinu Adonai v’nirafe,” ‘Soften us up, O God, so that we may be able to receive healing.’ Open our hearts so that we can receive the gift of those who seek to heal. Help us to break down our own resistance to Your healing love!”[vii]

Then of course there is the Mi Shebeirach. Mi Shebeirach, “mi shebeirach avoteinu v’imoteinu” is a prayer form traditionally offered in the midst of the Torah service and is most versatile. It can be offered for the person doing the Aliyah blessing, for soldiers, and we know this prayer best as a blessing for healing. For many of us liberal Jews, it wasn’t until Debbie Friedman and Rabbi Drorah Setel wrote their iconic melody [in 1987] in response to the AIDS epedemic that this prayer became an essential part of our worship experiences.

As renowned historian Jonathan Sarna describes: this Mi Shebeirach prayer setting, “With a holistic view of humankind, this prayer asks for physical cure as well as spiritual healing – asking for blessing, compassion, restoration, and strength, within the community of others facing illness, of body and spirit…”[viii]

The Jewish healing movement, in some ways spearheaded by the Mi Shebeirach melody we all know and love, has transformed the way that we Jews pray. Take the example provided by Dr. Gila Silverman, an anthropologist did an ethnographic study in Tucson, Arizona to understand why nonreligious Jews pray and why they pray for healing by asking questions like, “what does prayer do?”[ix]

Silverman tells these stories:

In the early winter of 2014, I attended the monthly meeting of a support group for Jewish women with cancer… I was there to recruit women for my study on Jewish prayer and healing. In response to my inquiries, one woman told me, ‘I don’t pray.’ Another said, ‘I’m not religious at all.’ Several women told me, ‘We’re not sure we can help you.’ At the close of the meeting, the women all got up from their seats and stood in a circle at the side of the room, holding hands, shoulders and hips touching. Eyes closed they began to sing a modern version of the Mi Sherberach … by [Debbie Friedman].”[x]

Then:

As the song came to an end, the hands holding each other lingered a little longer. There were gentle squeezes, then a slow letting go, a shoulder rub, a hug, and a few small conversations, and then the women left to go on with their day. Afterward, I was chatting with one of the women. She told me that she doesn’t pray. ‘‘What about that?’’ I asked, referring to the closing with Mi Sheberach. There was a thoughtful pause. ‘‘Oh,’’ she said, ‘‘I love that. It’s my favorite part of the morning. I guess you’re right. That is prayer. I hadn’t thought of it that way.’’ Later, another woman, who describes her Judaism as peripheral to her life, saying that she is mostly an ethical Jew, but not at all a religious one, told me this: ‘‘When we’re all together, holding hands and swaying, when I hear the Mi Sheberach…something in me just responds. I guess it’s my Jewish genes! We have so much love for each other in the group, and we are just surrounded by that love right then. It’s so beautiful.”[xi]

Singing, “Mi shebeirach imoteinu…” truly praying the words of Mi Shebeirach is now a vital part of the prayer life for many people because this prayer gives us an outlet for our hopes and fears. As Silverman’s study elucidates, the practice of praying for healing also brings connection, comfort and strength, agency, and identity to the ill and those who are offering prayer. People find connection with their community as a whole and with specific individuals who they knew prayed on their behalf. Comfort is found when reciting the Mi Shebeirach as it provides “some sort of emotional relief, often expressed as ‘acceptance,’ … both for those saying it, and for those for whom it is said.”[xii] Prayer also serves as a vehicle for “agency in a time and place characterized by increasing biomedicalization and technoscientific innovations.”[xiii] Finally, the practice of singing Mi Shebeirach connects or reconnects Jews to their religious identity in new ways.

More than ever, in the midst of this pandemic and on the dawn of a new year we need blessings for healing. Individuals, congregations, communities, cities, nations, and our world are crying out for healing. As my friend and colleague Rabbi Eric Weiss writes:

All healing is a journey towards wholeness. Most of us know ourselves best when we are healthy and well. When we become ill, we are suddenly estranged from our familiar surroundings and often by ourselves. It is as if we are in a foreign terrain with no guide … Spiritual reflection – in prayer or ritual – is the form that allows us to link our history to our personal story. It is a glimpse into a moment of life that longs to be held, to find comfort, to strive toward wholeness.[xiv]

Healing comes in many forms. Maimonides taught that it is an obligation, religious duty for those with the skills to create healing. In his explanation of the verse, “and you shall restore it”[xv] Maimonides explicates that this includes the person’s body, “that if she saw him lost and she can save him, she must save him with his body or with her money or with her knowledge.”[xvi] Should we possess the knowledge or the capacity to heal the body or heal the spirit it is up to us to do it. If we can offer words, we must pray.

So on this Rosh Hashanah and Shabbat morning we pray: R’faeinu, our Healer, we cry out to You like our ancestors of old to bring Your healing blessings to those individuals in need of healing of body, mind, and spirit. May those suffering with the Corona virus know wholeness and good health quickly. Continue to grant wisdom, compassion, and patience to the health care workers tirelessly working to aide, heal, and support all of those who are ill. May those who worry find small relief from their anxiety. May we all find wholeness, healing, renewal, and peace in this year 5781. Amen.

[i] Dorff, E.N. Matters of Life and Death: a Jewish approach to modern medical ethics. P. 28. I have edited this story from the version in the book slightly to appeal to a listening congregation.

[ii] https://www.livescience.com/worst-epidemics-and-pandemics-in-history.html. Accessed 09/09/2020.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Cutter, W. Healing and the Jewish Imagination, p. 3.

[v] Num. 12:13.

[vi] https://www.britannica.com/biography/Moses-Maimonides

[vii] Green, A. Healing and the Jewish Imagination, p. 55.

[viii] http://www.debbiefriedman.com/healing.

[ix] Silverman, “’I’ll say a Mi Sheberach for you’: Prayer, healing, and identity among liberal American Jews,” Contemporary Jewry 36(2)p. 173.

[x] Silverman, G., p. 170.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Silverman, 179.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Weiss, E. Mishkan Refuah ebook edition. CCAR Press. Location 153.

[xv] Deut. 22:2.

[xvi] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3678790/

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Don’t become paralyzed with fear

My sermon from tonight, Parshat Va’etchanan, Shabbat Nachamu

Don’t Become Paralyzed by Fear, in memory of Rep. John Lewis

There is a tremendous amount of disappointment in our lives today. We’ve cancelled vacations, missed eating with friends at restaurants, there will be no peanuts and cracker jacks at a baseball stadium this summer, and so many other things.

It is fitting in some way to name some of these things aloud this Shabbat, as this week in our tradition is called Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath of comfort following the lowest point of our liturgical year, Tisha b’Av. Shabbat Nachamu gets its name from the opening words of the Haftara from Isaiah, “nachamu nachamu ami, comfort oh comfort My people,”[i] begins this reading beginning the cycle of prophesies of comfort and consolation from the prophet Isaiah that culminate 7 weeks from tonight when we gather together to observe Rosh Hashanah.

And so tonight I fear I must present to you another small disappointment. We all know the now famous statement from Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav, Kol ha’olam kulo gesher tzar me’od v’ha’ikar lo lefached klal, the whole world is a very narrow bridge and the most important part is not to be afraid. We know this quote, maybe even better we know melodies that use these words, and we each can picture our own version of that narrow bridge. So, here’s the bad news. This is not exactly what Rebbe Nachman said.

The first part of the Rebbe Nachman’s quote is just what he said, Kol ha’olam kulo gesher tzar me’od – the whole world is a narrow bridge and the ikar, the most important principle, sh’lo yitpached klal – one should not paralyze themself with fear. If you are a grammarian, particularly a Hebrew grammar lover, you notice that the verb root stayed the same pachad, fear, but the verb tense is different. Technically we went from the piel to the hitpa’el verb form, from an intensive action verb to a reflexive verb. The whole world is a narrow bridge, the most important thing is don’t freak yourself out, don’t become paralyzed with fear.

I have been thinking a lot about bridges this week, in particular, one bridge in Selma, Alabama, the Edmund Pettus bridge that crosses the Alabama River. This bridge, not terribly long has a unique construction that makes it feel like a hill with a rise in the middle of the river. One day, God willing, we may be able to make a pilgrimage like I did a few years ago and we will be able to see for ourselves that when you stand at one end, you cannot see the other side. This bridge became famous in the 1960s at the height of the Civil Rights movement. On March 7, 1965, a peaceful protest was initiated from that bridge from Selma from Montgomery, however, when the peaceful marchers reached the crest of the bridge they were met by State troopers, local possemen who advanced on the marchers and beat many of them on a day that came to be known as Bloody Sunday. One of the 600 peaceful protesters badly beaten was a man named John Lewis, who suffered a fractured skull. Lewis was born in Troy, Alabama. At the age of 15 he heard Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. for the first time and closely followed the subsequent Montgomery bus boycott. Mr. Lewis was an active participant in the Civil Rights Movement, as a student in Nashville he organized sit-ins at segregated lunch counters, he became a student of non-violence from teachers like Rev. James Lawson and Rev. Kelly Miller Smith, and a leader of SNCC, the student nonviolent coordinating committee. He served as chairman and was one of the “Big Six” who organized the 1963 March on Washington where he was the youngest speaker and took the microphone just before Dr. King who would go on to deliver his famous “I have a dream speech.” Mr. Lewis was also active during Freedom Summer and a regular Freedom Rider. He was repeatedly the victim of violence and was arrested but he never strayed from his beliefs in nonviolence. When the the organizers of CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality, gave up the rides because of violence, it was Lewis and fellow student, Diane Nash from Nashville that continued riding, bringing the rides to their successful conclusion.

John Lewis was never paralyzed by fear. In fact he said, “you cannot be afraid to speak up and speak out for what you believe. You have to have courage, raw courage.”

Mr. Lewis’s life of public service really was just getting started in the 1960s. He believed fundamentally in the importance of the vote. He said, “the vote is the most powerful nonviolent tool we have.” In the 1970s he led the Voter Education Project, during his tenure 4 million minority voters were added to the rolls, making their voices heard. He first ran for the United States Congress in 1977 and lost, but his calling towards the political arena was strong. He became a member of the Atlanta City Council in 1981 and served there until winning the election to become the representative of Georgia’s 5th district in the House of Representatives. He was reelected successfully 16 times.

The principles of nonviolence remained core tenets of Representative Lewis’s life and legacy.

On July 17, Representative John Lewis died. This past Sunday, his coffin went over that bridge one final time as the funeral services in Selma were followed by his coffin lying in state in the capital building in Montgomery, and subsequently the capitol rotunda in Washington, DC., and the Georgia State Capital before his funeral in Atlanta.

On the day of his funeral Mr. Lewis sealed his legacy as a hero of our nation with final remarks that he arranged to appear on the day of his funeral. He wrote:

Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble. Voting and participating in the democratic process are key. The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it.

You must also study and learn the lessons of history because humanity has been involved in this soul-wrenching, existential struggle for a very long time. People on every continent have stood in your shoes, through decades and centuries before you. The truth does not change, and that is why the answers worked out long ago can help you find solutions to the challenges of our time. Continue to build union between movements stretching across the globe because we must put away our willingness to profit from the exploitation of others.

Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.[ii]

May we now continue the work of Representative John Lewis to make freedom ring. May we do the work knowing that, Kol ha’olam kulo gesher tzar me’od – the whole world is a narrow bridge and the ikar, the most important principle, sh’lo yitpached klal – one should not paralyze themself with fear, because John Lewis picked up Rebbe Nachman’s lesson and taught us by his profound example not to become paralyzed with fear.

Amen.

 

[i] Isa. 40:1

[ii] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/30/opinion/john-lewis-civil-rights-america.html

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My favorite teacher

Dear AE (initials only for privacy),

I saw your social media post announcing your retirement from teaching after an incredible 33 years. I know that we have not been in touch formally, though we are friends on Facebook. It seemed like given your exciting announcement it is the perfect moment to share with you what an incredible gift you gave me by being my teacher.

Without a doubt, when I am asked, “who was your favorite teacher,” your name quickly exits my lips, Mrs. E.  And no, I still won’t call you by your first name. If memory serves (and being that high school was few moons ago it is foggy), you taught me math for three years in high school. I think there may have been one horrendous semester when I had another instructor, such mistakes were only made once.

To say that math and I had a complicated relationship is to put it mildly. Though I was in the “advanced” math classes culminating in AP Calculus my senior year, math was always a struggle for me. I worked really hard, spent countless hours in your classroom after school getting extra help, and still struggled. I don’t think we ever figured out why I could solve a calculus problem on your whiteboard, but struggled on the lined paper and pencil at my desk. As your student you taught me that to a great educator sees every student for who they are and does everything within reason to see that lightbulb in their eyes that they understood the concepts. Maybe even more than the content is the process to get to that knowledge. You devoted countless hours to me and to so many of your other students and we are all better people for your unwavering devotion.

As an educator myself, I have been asked to identify a memorable moment in my own educational journey. It takes a few seconds for me to remember you sitting in your classroom in what was then the “new” wing at MHS. You were sitting on a stool at the overhead projector (yes I’m that old) teaching AP Calculus. You put down your pen, for some reason I remember green ink, and said, “Today is the most important day of your life. Today you learn that the integral is the reverse of a derivative,” and continued to prove to us why. [Full disclosure: I needed to search the internet to remember what was the reverse of a derivative]. If you could have played music and make fireworks explode for visual excitement on the overhead projector you would have done it. Math mattered so much to you and your excitement and energy for these concepts was infectious for all of your learners.

Mrs. E you went above and beyond to be present for your students. Due to my extensive after school hours working on math in your room we got to know one another pretty well. The holiday of Passover approached and you asked me some questions about my family’s observance that quickly led to an invitation to our family Seder for my remaining high school years.

My teenage years were not easy for me and there were some particularly difficult experiences at MHS. You support and the safe space you created for me in your classroom were a refuge for a young woman struggling to make her way through socially. Thank you for that, too.

I will never forget that you came to offer condolences to me after my mom died, I even tear up writing these words, 13 years after I graduated from high school. That lesson continues to guide me even these many years later. Good teachers show up when it matters most.

Mrs. E, if you will permit a rabbi (maybe your only student to be a rabbi??) to offer you a blessing on your retirement, it would be my honor.

May the abundant talents that you have continue to be blessings for all of those who you encounter as you enter this next fabulous phase of your life. May God continue to bless you with good health, abundance, precious time with family, and exciting adventures. May the blessings that you bestowed unto your hundreds of students come back to you as unexpected gifts and blessings on your journey. Amen.

If we are ever in the same city you and your family will always have a place of honor at my Passover Seder table, and should we see one another again, I will even make you those macaroons you liked so much. Congratulations on your much deserved retirement, Mrs. E!

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What a Basketball Star Teaches about Antisemitism

Here is my sermon from Friday night.

As a kid growing up in Los Angeles there were many advantages. Surely one of them were the Los Angeles Lakers of 1987 and 1988. Playing center was the graceful Kareem Abdul-Jabbar whose iconic skyhook was one of the most graceful basketball shots of all time. Even today I can close my eyes and see Magic Johnson bringing the ball down the court and finding Kareem who seamlessly moved his 7 foot 2 inch frame into position away from a defender and released the basketball in a perfect arc with just the right amount of back spin. Kareem was a basketball fan’s dream center; fast, tall, quick hands, and an excellent free point shooter. Today, decades later, Kareem continues to be an exemplar for new reasons.

This week Kareem wrote a piece calling out the recent round of antisemetic tweets and posts from Black sports and entertainment celebrities. The rapper Ice Cube, NFL player DeSean Jackson, NBA player Stephen Jackson, said and wrote antisemetic messages that are cause for alarm for everyone.

Kareem wrote:

Recent incidents of anti-Semitic tweets and posts from sports and entertainment celebrities are a very troubling omen for the future of the Black Lives Matter movement, but so too is the shocking lack of massive indignation. Given the New Woke-fulness in Hollywood and the sports world, we expected more passionate public outrage. What we got was a shrug of meh-rage.

When reading the dark squishy entrails of popular culture, meh-rage in the face of sustained prejudice is an indisputable sign of the coming Apatholypse: apathy to all forms of social justice. After all, if it’s OK to discriminate against one group of people by hauling out cultural stereotypes without much pushback, it must be OK to do the same to others. Illogic begets illogic.[1]

Kareem’s warning of the coming Apatholypse, a widening sense of apathy of social justice and a myriad of other issues ought to be a warning to each of us. When we as a faith community stop ringing the alarm bells at injustice, we become part of the problem instead of part of the solution.

We need to harken to our own calendar warnings for apathy, too. We are amid the period in our tradition known as the three weeks that mark the 17th of Tammuz to the 9th of Av, dates of trouble and turmoil for our people. The Mishna teaches that Moses broke the first set of tablets of the 10 Commandments on the 17th of Tammuz, the Romans forbade sacrifices at the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 69 CE, and in the year 70 the Romans breeched the Temple walls leading to the destruction of the Temple on the 9th of Av.[2] These three weeks are a period of semi-mourning and decreasing joy for some Jews as they lead into the nine days of the month of Av, traditionally a day with a 25-hour like Yom Kippur when we read the book of Lamentations. The destruction of the Temple though historically caused by the Romans and their conquest of the lands of the Middle East as the Roman Empire expanded has a different root theologically and on the psyche of the Jewish people. The Temple, the epicenter for Jewish life at the beginning of the millennium, is destroyed because of sinat chinam, baseless hatred, unwarranted apathy of people towards one another.[3]

We know the perils of apathy and we cannot afford to be silent when we begin to hear antisemitic tropes ever. A pandemic cannot quiet us. Our alliance with our siblings of color screaming for systemic change to the racist systems of oppression cannot distract us either.

Our Reform movement’s Union for Reform Judaism and Central Conference of American Rabbis issued a statement today that clarifies our position. The statement says:

Some in our country are resistant to the overdue changes and glimmer of hope which are blossoming for Black Americans at this moment of national reckoning. However, their efforts to impede important coalitions of change and sow seeds of division belie the fact that when any of us are oppressed, we are all oppressed. We as Reform Jews will not allow antisemitic words from individual members of an oppressed minority to diminish our support of Black lives or detract from our commitment to the dismantling of systemic and structural racism in our country. Instead of questioning the commitment of others, we reaffirm our own.[4]

We need to call out antisemitism every single time it rears its ugly head. We need to continue to educate ourselves and our allies so that our enemies’ attempts at fueling the fire of hatred get no oxygen. We need to be what Civil Rights leader Bayard Rustin called “angelic troublemakers,” we cannot rest or be part of the Apatholypse because the threats to justice overwhelm us or seem like someone else’s problem. The book of Lamentations concludes with a verse we know well, “hashiveinu Adonai elecha v’nashuva, chadeish yameinu k’kedem, bring us back to You, Adonai, that we come back, renew our days as of old.”[5] May our weary souls find strength in our Eternal God and may our faith strengthen us as we root out baseless hatred in our hearts and in our world. Amen.

 

[1] https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/kareem-abdul-jabbar-is-outrage-anti-semitism-sports-hollywood-1303210

[2] Taanit 4:6.

[3] Yoma 9b.

[4] https://www.ccarnet.org/the-reform-movement-condemns-recent-antisemitic-statements/?fbclid=IwAR0QPMzFoeCIbCZUD9wm3hUB5dgWoOYf6xFg4FLXWPFy5A1vEppdeeq1Zss

[5] Lamentations 5:21.

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Passover 5780/2020

Every time I open my refrigerator I can smell it. That pungent, spicy horseradish root is permeating the space and wafts out the fridge door every time I open it. Passover is coming and my maror (bitter herb) is ready.

Passover this year will not be like any celebration before for any of us. Like many families in this time of physical distancing and social connection, my wife and I will celebrate the first Seder (Passover ritual meal) at our table without anyone else in person. We will be using an online platform to connect across the miles with close family and dearest friends, familiar faces at our Seder table now seen only via screen.

This is going to be hard. And that maror on our Seder plate is a reminder that Jews know hard and bitter times. Without a long recounting of thousands of years of history, I can say that Jewish creativity and innovation is also a part of the history of Passover . The Seder is our annual retelling of the Exodus. This narrative is not a story of people who lived long ago, it is my story, it is our story. In every generation each individual is obligated  to see themselves as though they went out from the Narrow Place/Egypt. We have known bitter times and narrow places. This Passover is happening while our world is in a narrow place and we will make it through.

I also have a confession. I don’t like horseradish. I don’t like it in any form, even wasabi. I always eat enough to fulfill the obligation for the bitter herb/maror moment of the Seder is sanctified with blessing, I think this year I might eat a little extra. I want to allow myself  the sensory experience of the fire in my sinuses. And those tears in my eyes? They may or may not be from the horseradish root. We shall see.

This Passover is definitely going to be different. May you embrace all of the feelings as you gather for Seder this year, however you are gathering. May you and all of those you love know safety and good health. May this time of physical distancing come to a conclusion when it is safe, so that we may all be together again.

Our Seder always concludes with the prayer, “Next year in Jerusalem!” To this I add, “next year around the table with those we love!” Amen.

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Shabbat is almost here

I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait for Shabbat. This week leaves me anxious and exhausted, my soul yearns to be refreshed. This week in the Torah we read, “The People of Israel shall guard Shabbat, observing Shabbat throughout the ages as a sign of the special relationship, the covenant, for all time,” (Ex. 31:16). On the Shabbat may our souls be refreshed and renewed. May we take lots of healthy breaths. May we observe physical distancing from the people that we encounter and great them, instead, with words of warmth and welcome. May we remember our blessings and express gratitude to God for them today and every day. May we know rest and renewal. Shabbat Shalom.

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What about parsnips?

Dear MOM,

I am so excited for Passover this year. The opportunity to celebrate with family and friends is so precious. And for some reason, Passover is becoming one of my favorite holidays (look out Sukkot). We are hosting Seder this year and in the familial distribution of Seder responsibilities, chicken soup is my job. I have made chicken soup many times. But this time I wanted you.

“Mom, parsnips. Why don’t you use parsnips in your soup?” I may or may not have said hello first when I called. Sometimes we did that. Oh how I wanted to pick up the phone and call you. That happens a lot.

Mom, your soup was the best. It is the gold standard to which I hold all chicken soup. Broth that never needed anything extra, the savory taste of slowly cooked stock with carrots for me, and matzo balls that float (never sinkers in our family!). I can see you in the kitchen making it when I close my eyes. I know what pots you used depending on the quantity of soup, and I even remember the secret ingredient.

But, parsnips. Why didn’t you use parsnips?

I have guesses. You never liked cooked carrots and didn’t have any in your soup bowl. I know because you and MY SISTER used to give them to me. Cooked parsnips might have fallen into the “cooked carrot” category for you. I bet your mom didn’t use parsnips and with some recipes, never written down, you made them just as you watched her. Could your soup be her soup? And finally, you liked your soup savory and parsnips may have added too much sweetness for you.

Passover is the opportunity for the annual telling of the sacred narrative of the Jewish people. For thousands of years, our people have performed a version of the rites of the Seder meal, and, like any evolving tradition, there are adaptations and interpretations for the time in which we live.

Mom, your soup might have competition. Because this year the soup has parsnips. I think you’d like it.

Happy Passover. I love you and miss you fiercely,

Your Ellie

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Learning Torah in memory of a friend

Reading this article brought a flood of wonderful memories.

I was eleven years old when my family moved from Los Angeles to a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota. My parents visited St. Paul a few times in preparation for our big move, they bought a house, selected a synagogue, and made friends who would become our family of choice.

Bill Kampf loved many things. First and foremost he loved his family and his friends. He loved Judaism and Jewish tradition. He loved to argue, politics, to drive fast in extremely specific vehicles, Minnesota, spicy food, and the law.

Bill taught me to drive a manual transmission (though I think the last time I did it was when I was in high school). Our families would often meet for non-traditional Shabbat dinner before going to services at our shared synagogue. Often we ate Vietnamese food and Bill always arrived late. Bill loved the music at services and he loved having a connection to the clergy.

One summer during college I worked in Bill’s law practice doing odd jobs. It was thanks to that experience that I gained the incredibly valuable skill of removing paper jams from copy machines. The Torah study group that is described in the article met, at that time, in Bill’s office and one of my tasks was to take lunch orders and, as I knew rabbinical school was on the horizon, to participate as part of my work day. (I also think Bill always bought my lunch).

Today, when I read this article I too remembered Bill and will continue to study and learn in his memory. Zichrono livracha, may Bill’s memory always be for a blessing.

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Kol Nidre sermon and sermon song

It took a  little longer than I’d planned, however here is a video of my Kol Nidre sermon, Embrace the “And” and the sermon song “Simple Song” by Leonard Bernstein sung by MY SISTER, the cantorial soloist. This video was shot by an amateur intended for MY DAD who planned to come to worship with us, however got sick (he’s fine now) and was unable to do so. (If you only want to hear “Simple Song” it begins at about 15:15).

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Embrace the “And”

“Embrace the “And”,” my sermon for Kol Nidre 5779 is below.

The part of the river used as a mikveh for ritual immersion was situated high atop a steep hill on the outskirts of Premishlan. When the road leading up to it was slippery, people had to take the long way around the hill, for to walk straight uphill was dangerous. Reb Meir, the Rebbe of Premishlan, always took the direct route up, irrespective of the state of the road, and was never known to stumble or slip. One snowy day, when the icy mountain paths were es­pecially hazardous, Reb Meir walked uphill to the river as usual. Two guests were staying in the area… These young men did not believe in supernatural achievements, and when they saw Reb Meir striding uphill with sure steps as usual, they con­vinced themselves and each other that the road up there was no doubt easily scaled, and not in the least dangerous. In order to prove their theory, they waited until Reb Meir had begun immersing in the river, and then set out confidently up the icy hillside road. After only a few steps on the treach­erous trail, they slipped and tumbled down the path, requiring medical attention for their injuries. When one of the young men was fully healed, he mustered the courage to approach the rebbe with a question: “Why was it that no one could negotiate the slippery road, while the Rebbe walked with sure steps, never stumbling?”

Reb Meir replied: “If a man is connected on high, he doesn’t fall down below. Meir is tied up on high, and that is why he can take even a slippery hill in his stride.”[i]

The Hebrew letter, vav looks like a hook or a chute which connects us to God’s heavenly realm. Like the vav, tonight we stand tall for we are the embodiment of the letter vav, grounded in this world and connected to God’s heavenly realm.  It is this day that we stand before the Holy One, the Creator of the Universe, Infinite Potential, and ask for forgiveness, atonement, and of course, using the metaphor of these days of awe, to be written and sealed in the book of life for another year.

In Modern Hebrew, the preposition vav means ‘and’. “And” is a joining word, it helps us to connect things in both Hebrew and English. On this, the night of Kol Nidre, we all need to embrace more hooks and chutes that connect us to God and our tradition, to more “and” in our lives. I am not suggesting that we add more things to make us busier or more stuff. There is enough of that. I propose that we all can do better in creating a balance between all of the parts of our identities, especially our Jewishness and our spirituality. We can be people of faith and we can have questions. We can be good parents and dedicated workers. We can be Americans and Jews. It seems to me that most of us are losing our minds trying to balance between all of the roles and responsibilities that we have. As Rabbi Harold Schulweis wrote, “beware of split thinking, schizophrenic thinking! When you are confronted with ‘Either/Or,’ think again! Look for ‘Both/And.’ Yes, there is night and light, but there is one day.”[ii] This juggling of identities and even the juggling of priorities is making us exhausted. Instead of either/or, we need to embrace the “and”.

When my sister Jessica, I mean Cantorial Soloist Steinman, was six years old she was obsessed with the 1961 movie Westside Story. And when I say obsessed, I mean that we had to watch it every single day for nearly a year and probably still to this day can recite every dialogue line and sing every lyric. And so it was probably thanks to my sister that I also learned and fell in love with Leonard Bernstein’s music.

This year there have been numerous celebrations of Leonard Bernstein’s 100th birthday. And I am hard-pressed to think of another Jewish American who embodies this idea of ‘and’ more than he did, especially as it pertains to Jewishness and being an American.

[iii]Leonard Bernstein was the child of Ukranian immigrants, who lived the American dream, eventually owning and operating their own successful business. The Bernsteins moved from the outskirts of Boston to Boston proper and joined the most prestigious synagogue in town, Mishkan Tefila. The synagogue building was in the center of the city’s Jewish neighborhood and the community constructed a sumptuous building and included the second largest organ in New England, the first being in Symphony Hall.

The Bernstein family became synagogue regulars on Shabbat and holidays. Leonard and his siblings attended the high quality Hebrew school program that took place five days per week. Yes, five days a week. I don’t want to hear any kvetching about a one-day a week program ever again. Leonard Bernstein loved it. He graduated from the program with honors after five years of study. As he trained to become bar Mitzvah, he broke with the congregation’s tradition which was for the students to present ready made speeches and delivered an articulate and personally crafted d’var Torah.[iv]

Leonard Bernstein loved his synagogue and all that he learned there. Most of all he loved the music. He explained:

We were of the Conservative persuasion …. which allowed for an organ and a choir in a hidden choir loft, and when they let rip I used to go mad! We had a fabulous cantor who was a great musician and a beautiful man, very tall, very majestic. He would begin to sing the ancient tunes—they are not exactly melodies, because they are not really written down; they’re traditional, handed down orally—and he had a tenor voice of such sweetness and such richness—with a dark baritonal quality, I now realize; I didn’t know a tenor from a baritone in those days—and then the organ would start and then the choir would begin with its colors, and I just began to get crazed with the sound of choral music.[v]

While he clearly loved the cantor and his voice, Bernstein’s greatest musical mentor and inspiration in these early years of his life was the music director of the congregation, Solomon Braslavsky. Trained in Vienna, Braslavsky brought musical renown to the synagogue. An eight-year-old Leonard Bernstein attending Friday night services with his father was moved to tears by the sound of the music, and especially the organ that made it seem as though God was speaking. In truth, because the organ pipes were hidden high from view, as the sound cascaded down, to a young child, God was in fact making this music. Braslavsky created musical programs that fused Jewish and Yiddish music with Western classical musical traditions. It was in the synagogue where Bernstein first heard Giuseppe Verdi, Felix Mendelsohn, Ernest Bloch, and Franz Schubert. It took some years for Leonard Bernstein and his siblings to understand that Dr. Braslavsky was not writing this music himself.

Braslavsky’s mentorship of Leonard Bernstein was immersive. Bernstein learned to chant Torah, haftarah, and the chants for the festival scrolls. His synagogue involvement was a vital part of his upbringing, so significant were the relationships Leonard Bernstein made at Mishkan Tefila, it was the clergy who wrote recommendation letters that led to his acceptance into Harvard. He was married at Mishkan Tefila, and much later his children would become b’nai Mitzvah there as well.

Once Leonard Bernstein found music, there was no keeping him from it. Wherever there was a piano, he would play it.  He would become the youngest conductor of the New York Philharmonic at age 25. He was the first American born and American trained conductor to lead a major orchestra. And as he began to compose, the Jewish music of the synagogue served as a backbone to his compositions. In his first symphony, Jeremiah, Bernstein utilizes Hebrew and the haftarah trope. In the third movement he turns to Eicha, Lamentations, possibly written by the prophet Jeremiah and uses the special trope for that biblical book, too.

And in his works from the 1960s like Dybbuk and the Kaddish Symphony, the sounds of the synagogue of his youth returned to his compositions. Even in his 1971 Mass, a piece commissioned by Jackie Kennedy for the opening of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, his Jewishness could not be held back. Bernstein and his collaborator, Stephen Schwartz,

Took the Tridentine Mass, a highly-ritualized Catholic rite meant to be recited verbatim, and applied to it a very Jewish practice of debating and arguing with God. The result was a piece that powerfully communicated the confusion and cultural malaise of the early 1970s, questioning authority and advocating for peace.[vi]

Leonard Bernstein is the first American composer whose background in synagogue music makes a marked impression upon all areas of his work. Whether it was Westside Story, Candide, On the Town, On the Waterfront, Wonderful Town, or his sonatas, fugues or symphonies the sounds he heard as a child and his excellent education musically and Jewishly come through.

Bernstein was a proud Jew. He refused to change his name to something more American. And he was a Zionist with a strong connection to Israel. He conducted the then Palestine Philharmonic in 1947 and would go on to help found and regularly conduct the Israel Philharmonic. He helped forge the creative arts and music program at my alma mater, Brandeis University.

Leonard Bernstein lived an “and” life. He was a great American composer and he was not the greatest lyricist.  He was a father and a man who struggled with his sexual identity. He was an American and he never hid his Jewish identity.

I don’t know if we have any composers or conductors in our presence tonight the likes of Bernstein. However, we are all here as human beings searching for meaning. So how do we add some more “and” to our lives? Perhaps we can learn from comedy.

In improvisational comedy, “yes, and” is an important technique. As Tina Fey explains it:

The second rule of improvisation is not only to say yes, but YES, AND. You are supposed to agree and then add something of your own. If I start a scene with “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you just say, “Yeah…” we’re kind of at a standstill. But if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “What did you expect? We’re in hell.” Or if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “Yes, this can’t be good for wax figures.” … Now we’re getting somewhere.[vii]

Fey continues:

To me YES, AND means don’t be afraid to contribute. It’s your responsibility to contribute. Always make sure you’re adding something to the discussion. Your initiations are worthwhile.[viii]

Our lives are an improvisation. And they are varied, beautiful, difficult, wonderful, challenging, inspiring, and meaningful. And it is when we embrace the “and” that we are best able to bring our full selves to it.

Yom Kippur comes to remind us to be like a vav, to embrace the and, to stand tall with a hook into heaven, to be fully present, to allow the music of our tradition and the words of the ancient Hebrew to connect us to God and to our Jewish family on this sacred day. And, the challenge is to stay connected all year long.

Yom Kippur, Shabbat Shabbaton, is the day for re-centering ourselves, connecting to our own successes and failures and committing to do better in the New Year. It is the day when we speak aloud of faults, name our vulnerabilities, and come out at the end, we pray, with direction and focus to be our best selves every day of this New Year. The haunting melody Kol Nidre tugs at our hearts as does the sound of the shofar like an alarm to be like a vav with our feet planted and still connected on high to our Jewish heritage, to God. The challenge is for this to be a day that infuses our souls with meaning that we carry on to every day.

So, in order to embrace the “and” in this New Year we can say YES AND. We can contribute with positivity, good intentions, and know those things will be reciprocated from others. We can meet with people with whom we might disagree and we can make sure they are our adversary not our enemy. We can continue to find ways to infuse Judaism into our lives and go about our daily business. To read Jewish books and articles, listen to Jewish podcasts from which we can learn new things. And if they’re of the right age, ensure that our children’s Jewish education is a priority. We can make sure our kids finish homework, get to soccer, baseball, and dance and that they are present for their Jewish learning and community. We can work hard to provide for our families and we can give tzedakah.  We can stand tall like the letter vav and be vulnerable to the mysteries of the universe. And like Leonard Bernstein, we can be American and Jewish.

As it says in the Torah portion we will read tomorrow, it is not too hard for us to do, it is just as easy as a simple song.

**The sermon anthem was “Simple Song” from Bernstein’s Mass.

 

 

 

[i] From A Treasury of Chassidic Tales, Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin, Mesorah Publications, Ltd., NY, 1980; 1992.

[ii] Wolpe, David. “Honoring the and” The New York Jewish Week, July 11, 2018. https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/honoring-the-and/

[iii] I took an online course with Dr. Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University celebrating the 100th anniversary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth on June 25, 2018. Much of this material comes from that webinar.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid, p. 30.

[vi] https://leonardbernstein.com/works/view/12/mass-a-theatre-piece-for-singers-players-and-dancers

[vii] Fey, Tina. Bossypants. Little Brown and Company, 2011. P. 84.

[viii] Ibid.

[1] From A Treasury of Chassidic Tales, Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin, Mesorah Publications, Ltd., NY, 1980; 1992.

[1] Wolpe, David. “Honoring the and” The New York Jewish Week, July 11, 2018. https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/honoring-the-and/

[1] I took an online course with Dr. Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University celebrating the 100th anniversary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth on June 25, 2018. Much of this material comes from that webinar.

[1] Ibid.

[1] Ibid, p. 30.

[1] https://leonardbernstein.com/works/view/12/mass-a-theatre-piece-for-singers-players-and-dancers

[1] Fey, Tina. Bossypants. Little Brown and Company, 2011. P. 84.

[1] Ibid.

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