Having opted to leave the Interstate and take the shortest route, I shouldn’t have been surprised to find myself traveling over mountains and across the Tennessee River on a winding State Highway. But I had no idea what mountains traversed the Georgia-Alabama border. I silently chided myself for my inadequate study of local geography and vowed to consult a map when I returned home.
I’d spent some weeks preparing for my first visit to Huntsville. I practiced the Torah reading, perused the materials sent by the synagogue’s lay leader and photocopied texts for our Saturday afternoon study session. I thought about what wisdom to share with the community of Etz Chayim and how to encourage their questions, to allow their interests to guide our conversations.
In Huntsville, I met engineers, professors and, of course, rocket scientists. I also met artists, farmers, teachers, writers and retirees who volunteer in the community. The Jews of Etz Chayim are an eclectic group; the one thing they share is a concern for the future of their synagogue.
The demographic reality in Huntsville, like that of many smaller cities across the southeast, is that its Jewish population is aging as the younger generation migrates to larger cities following graduation from college. Huntsville’s young adult to middle aged population, employed predominantly by high-tech industry and manufacturing sectors, may be especially transient because of the fast-paced, changing nature of their work.
Etz Chayim hosts a visiting rabbi on a monthly basis. “When the rabbi’s in town,” they tell me, “there is a good turnout for Friday night and Saturday morning services. On other weekends, only a few people attend on Saturdays.” This was difficult to imagine, because the group that gathered to study Torah was comprised of highly educated and engaged Jews, who posed challenging questions about the text and made connections between Exodus, African rituals, Kabbalah and Moby Dick.
We spent much of Saturday dinner and Sunday breakfast confronting challenging questions related to the sustainability of this community. I told them that I have no answers, yet I possess an abiding optimism that they will find creative solutions. This congregation is both devoted to preserving the synagogue’s heritage and committed to exploring new ways of flourishing in the 21st century.
I’m grateful to these wise people, who not only offered me Southern Jewish hospitality in Huntsville, but also an opportunity to fulfill the mission of Rabbis Without Borders, “to make Jewish wisdom an accessible resource to help people enrich their lives.” My life was enriched through studying with and serving them.
I extended my studies through Monday: Checking an atlas when I arrived home, I learned Huntsville is on the other side of the southern tip of the Appalachian Mountains.
Have you already chosen your word for 2015? The word that will focus your attention on what you want to do and who you want to be this year?
It’s not too late to choose. New Year’s Eve—the traditional time for making resolutions—was less than one week ago, and many promises made that night have probably been broken by now.
I chose my word yesterday, after realizing that it had been on my mind all weekend. I guess I needed a little time to overthink the matter.
It probably won’t surprise you that I came across the idea of choosing one word for the year on Facebook. Every Friday morning I spend some time scrolling through the week’s posts of The Originals, a writers group I joined for participants in Jeff Goins’ My500Words writing challenge. On Friday, January 2nd I read Laura Hile’s blog post about her word for 2015 and followed a link to the My One Word website, where I was captivated by the idea of changing my life through focusing on one word.
Rereading the end of that last sentence, I can actually hear how corny it sounds.
Please allow me to explain and, perhaps, to persuade you. I love a challenge.
In fact, challenge is the word that kept occurring to me as I contemplated my choice. A few weeks ago, my daughter invited me to join her in the 2015 Reading Challenge and I readily agreed. Last week I finished the Thursday New York Times crossword in record time and decided to try the Friday puzzle for a new challenge.
Here’s my word:
Etgar is Hebrew for challenge (noun), a modern word derived from an ancient three-letter root, g.r.h, meaning to challenge, provoke or stimulate. I chose a Hebrew word not because I’m a native Hebrew speaker, rather because the process of researching its etymology led me to consult half a dozen books, including an Aramaic dictionary not opened since 2013. Like I said earlier, I love a challenge, particularly one which stimulates the intellect.
Etgar represents what I want to do and who I want to be this year. I’m ready to face whatever challenges are ahead in 2015.
What word do you choose?
I prefer to get my news by listening to public radio. Because I’m a visual learner, I’m forced to concentrate more to catch all the details, so I find that listening to the news keeps me better informed. Because I’m sensitive, I try to avoid graphic pictures and videos on television and social media; when I do see a disturbing image, it tends to get stuck in my mind.
Hearing of the grand jury’s failure to indict the police officers involved in Eric Garner’s death, feeling frustrated that I could not take to the streets of NYC with my colleagues to protest, I turned on the television to watch the news unfold. Inadvertently, I also watched the video that I’d previously managed to avoid, the video that captured one officer subduing Eric Garner with an illegal chokehold, another holding his head against the pavement, pushing with both hands and exerting what appeared to be excessive force. Seeing a broadcast of these final, violent moments of Garner’s life left me feeling depleted.
I recognize that a few moments of video footage cannot adequately show everything that may be apparent to those who are physically present. Eye witnesses’ vision can also be distorted; despite that we possess greater peripheral vision than a camera lens, our eyes offer a limited view of the world around us. We sometimes rely on others to report what they are seeing when we are out of visual range, and even when we can see with our own eyes, we don’t always understand what we see. Our eyes convey images to our brains, where the information is stored in memory and can be revisited…and revised. We remember our initial, emotional response to what we’ve seen and reinterpret its significance.
Because our eyes can lead us astray, God commands Moses to tell the people of Israel to put fringes on the corners of their garments: “And you shall have the fringe so you will see it and bring to mind all of God’s commandments and will do them, and you will not go around after your heart and after your eyes, because you whore after them.” (Numbers 15:39, according to Professor Friedman’s translation) The tzitzit, fringes, are intended to cause a positive association with God, to help our eyes guide us toward holiness. Wrapping in garments and gazing at the fringes, we prevent ourselves from being misled by our imperfect vision, from being seduced by our desire to possess things, from being influenced by people who would lead us away from God.
I am haunted by the idea that my eyes deceive me.
A week ago, I was walking home from the park with my dog, when I saw tree branches poking out of a pile of dead leaves next to the sidewalk. The dog began to pull me toward the branches—she perceived with her keen sense of smell what I could not see clearly—and as she dragged me closer to them, I saw they were not branches but the head of a young buck. He was lying in perfect stillness, as if he’d stopped to catch his breath before heading up the hill and into the crosswalk. But I could see that his eyes, with their glassy sheen, were not blinking. He was beautiful in lifeless repose.
This is not an image of graphic violence, yet it returns to me when I watch Eric Garner cease to struggle as he is lowered to the ground. They are both lying—the deer and the man—empty of breath. I close my eyes to see with my heart, and resolve that tomorrow I will return to listening without watching the news.
Living in a house full of readers, I often find my book—the book that I reserved from the library to read on Shabbat afternoon—sitting on someone else’s nightstand with someone else’s favorite bookmark peeking out from the pages, a clear signal that someone else has staked a claim to my book. I am annoyed, though only until I remember the many times my spouse has warned me away from a book that he knows I won’t enjoy.
There is only one genre about which we tend to disagree: biography/memoir. He’s a scientist who prefers non-fiction and literary fiction, while I’m an artist who is hungry for personal narratives that demonstrate the writer’s source of inspiration. That’s why I was surprised when he devoured Bringing Bubbe Home: A Memoir of Letting Go through Love and Death, by Debra Gordon Zaslow. He finished it in a single afternoon and insisted I read it next. “You’ll love it,” he assured me.
Bringing Bubbe Home is so personal that I immediately feel as if I’ve known Debra my whole life. She is a gifted storyteller and writer, and she shares her story of the decision to bring her 103 year old grandmother home from an assisted living facility—to care for her until her death—with unwavering compassion and honesty.
The book stayed with me long after I’d finished reading the epilogue; hours after the havdalah candle was extinguished and the peace of Shabbat had departed from our home, I was still thinking about Debra’s family. I wanted to recommend the book to my spouse, but realized that he’d already read it. I considered giving it to my friend, with whom I swap books regularly, but she is still in the first year of mourning her mother and Debra’s detailed account of Bubbe’s death might be too painful for her to read right now.
So I recommend it to you. If you read only one book during Jewish Book Month, please let it be this one.
I don’t remember the date in September—even though, beginning on Labor Day, my son reminds me several times—but I have the Hebrew date imprinted in my memory. It is the 21st of Tishre, the seventh day of Sukkot, Hoshana Rabbah.
We won’t light a yahrzeit candle or recite a prayer, despite that our personal practice tends toward traditional observance of rituals. Perhaps because we are more traditional it seems inappropriate to memorialize a family pet in the same way one would a human. Still, I wish to honor her memory, so I create a technological memorial.
I change my Facebook profile picture to one of her lounging in the sukkah, just days before her death, and friends comment to comfort me with their memories of her life. I tweet a link to what could be called her obituary, a blog post about our ten years together. I feel a twinge of guilt—thinking these small acts of remembrance are somehow disloyal to our new dog—and resolve to post some photos of her after the holiday.
Discussing these newly-created rituals, my spouse asks, “Do you think animals have souls?”
I reply “yes” without hesitation. Not because I am one of those “dog people” (I am) or because I am a pantheist (I’m not), but because I believe it, feel it, deep in my soul. I spend several days formulating a well-reasoned reply. Something to extend the discussion beyond, “of course animals have souls; humans are animals, after all.” If the soul is the essence of life, the very thing that distinguishes sentient beings from inanimate objects, then humans are different from other animals not because we possess souls but because we have language with which we acknowledge God the Creator of souls.
While I’m remembering, my thoughts turn to Hoshana Rabbah, a strange interruption of the joy of the Sukkot season. During the morning prayers, the liturgical tradition is to return to the haunting melody of Yom Kippur because—while the book of life is sealed and the gates of repentance are closed at the end of Yom Kippur—the rabbis allowed for the possibility that during Sukkot we could nudge God toward granting forgiveness. Hoshana Rabbah is an extended deadline for atonement; some Jews symbolically cast off their sins by beating the willow branch until its leaves fall away.
Last year when I beat the willow branch, I was picturing Jenna waking up on the final day of her life and praying for the return of her soul to its creator. Tomorrow, when I participate in this ancient ritual, I will acknowledge our creator and engage my soul in remembering Jenna.
For those not immersed in the British television phenomenon that is Doctor Who, TARDIS (an acronym for Time and Relative Dimension in Space) is the Doctor’s mode of transportation. Because I am not a Whovian, I asked my daughter about it and later verified her explanation with Wikipedia: “A properly maintained and piloted TARDIS can transport its occupants to any point in time and any place in the universe.”
Prayer, tefilah, is meant to serve the same function as the TARDIS. The words, the melodies, the movements, are all designed to transport us to another dimension, a divine dimension. For months, I have been thinking about this connection, dreaming about creating a Tefilah TARDIS to help me reach God. But I never did. It seems that I, too, was waiting for the arrival of a doctor—a spiritual doctor.
I got to see him on the second of Elul, the month in which we begin preparations for the High Holidays, at a meeting of the Atlanta Rabbinical Association. Rabbi Avi Weiss was invited to teach a professional development workshop, but I knew to expect something personally meaningful, and Rabbi Weiss did not disappoint.
In the section of his lesson, Teshuva: Rendezvous with God, Rabbi Weiss introduced a variety of texts about seeking and encountering God. Here I found the inspiration for my TARDIS, in the poetry of Yehuda HaLevi (translation by Nina Salaman):
I have sought your nearness,
With all my heart have I called You,
And going out to meet You,
I found You coming toward me.
These words perfectly capture my intention when I pray, whether I am praying alone in my living room or surrounded by others in a synagogue. The goal is to be transported, to be elevated to where God is and to bring God to where I am. I regret that I am often unsuccessful in achieving this goal. My prayers, a perfunctory recitation of a fixed liturgy, fail to transport me.
In his book, Holistic Prayer: A Guide to Jewish Spirituality, Rabbi Weiss writes that prayer is “reaching inward to stir our soul, outward to embrace our fellow human being, and upward to encounter God. Here, holistic prayer enters a new realm.” I don’t know if he envisions the use of a Tefilah TARDIS, but Rabbi Weiss certainly recommends a properly maintained and piloted prayer experience, one that transports us to anywhere in the universe where God will meet us.
Could I create a tool with which to attempt a rendezvous with God? While Rabbi Weiss guided us through his lesson, I returned to this passage and imagined it inscribed on a Lucite box.
It took the better part of a week to collect the materials, paint the lid and exterior, and design the interior of my Tefilah TARDIS. Once it was completed, I began integrating this box into my daily routine, setting it on the table to remind me that the goal of prayer is to seek God. Sometimes I take a piece of chalk and write what I’m praying for—strength, patience, forgiveness, peace—on the lid. Other times, before I begin reciting a psalm, I remove the CD to write the names of friends in need of healing. Occasionally, I look up from my prayer book and turn the box to reveal the notes I’ve placed inside it.
As Elul ends and the High Holidays begin, I am ready to be transported.
There’s a reason you haven’t seen me online much this summer. I went underground to avoid the graphic images of children suffering in Israel and Gaza, Iraq and Syria; to escape the vitriolic language of my friends’ Facebook updates; to disconnect from bullying demands that I demonstrate loyalty to my ally and condemn the enemy. Unable to find peace, I chose to disengage from the violence in the world upstairs and embrace the silence in my basement studio.
Here, I breathe normally and work purposefully. I empty my mind of anxiety as I systematically empty bottles of glaze onto ceramic plates and bowls, pieces that feature sunbursts and flames—light to dispel the darkness of this summer. Somehow, my hiding in the basement studio transforms into an act of sympathy with those seeking shelter from missiles.
Thinking only of the micro-motions required to finish this piece, I steady my left hand against the rim of a Yahrzeit candle holder and begin writing the words of the Psalmist: “Teach us to number our days and allow us to acquire a heart of wisdom.” (Psalms 90:12) I patiently apply three coats of glaze, allowing each letter to dry before tracing the next. I cannot possibly number the hours I spend absorbed in this task, seeking solace in this underground sanctuary.
Recently forced to emerge from hiding—to teach Torah and serve as a rabbi—I can barely resist my desire to avoid the news and graphic images of violence and destruction that continue to plague the world above ground. Sitting at my desk, struggling to find some wisdom that I acquired in the studio to share in this space, I realize this is my Torah: how I spent the summer devoted to healing my own broken spirit.
Writing this piece and daydreaming about glazing ceramic pieces, I wonder more than once if sharing my experience of hiding in the basement will be of value to anyone else. Will teaching this Torah help anyone else find peace? Maybe others don’t suffer anxiety about the state of the world or feel the need to hide as strongly as I do. Maybe it’s true that I’m over-sensitive. Or maybe someone will read these words—the description of one person’s experience of trying to mitigate her anxiety—and find them to be helpful. If so, I’ll consider my return to the blogosphere a first step toward pursuing peace.
The experience of channeling nervous energy into the creation of Judaica helps me get through difficult days. I rewrite the words of the Psalmist in glaze and sing them quietly; they awaken my soul from despair. I find the strength of spirit to emerge from hiding, ready to heal our broken world.
Last week, my colleagues Rabbis Rebecca Sirbu and Ben Greenberg shared their opinions here about whether rabbis should talk about Israel, and each presented cogent and well-articulated reasons. I was inspired to respond, in part, by the use of “should” and “shouldn’t” in the headline. I cannot assert that other rabbis should or shouldn’t talk about Israel, but I would like to speak personally about why I don’t talk about Israel.
Israel is a topic that gets people’s blood pumping and, when emotions run high, impulsivity tends to override thoughtful and rational conversation. We sometimes allow ourselves to say things we later regret. As a rabbi who works primarily with adolescents, I strive to nurture the open-minded exploration of questions about Judaism and identity, which requires working against the competing desire to shut-down discussion of gray areas with a single, decisive “right answer.” In my experience, few deep and complicated questions have right answers. However, when teens and young adults talk about Israel, they believe there is only one right answer.
Because I’m not a full-time pulpit rabbi, on Shabbat I often sit as a “Jew in the pew” in synagogue. There I have found many adults who struggle with maintaining a balanced stance when discussing Israel. Occasionally, my colleagues seize the opportunity to express their views stridently in sermons, exhorting the congregation from their bully pulpits to see the “truth.” Later, at the Kiddush lunch, discussions quickly devolve into heated arguments in which otherwise rational and intelligent people present strongly-held opinions as facts. Having witnessed this type of polarization within a synagogue community, I can attest to the pain and alienation that a rabbi’s words can inadvertently cause. For this reason, I am especially careful when I speak about Israel and other issues that isolate listeners so that they metaphorically stop up their ears.
In addition to serving as a visiting rabbi or scholar-in-residence in congregations, I spend my summers working at a Jewish camp that employs many Israelis as counselors. Many of these staff members arrive at camp having just completed their military service in the Israeli army. Although I have acquired wisdom about numerous topics and although I am old enough to be their mother, there is nothing in my life experience that imbues me with authority to teach these young adults about Israel. I believe that it would be presumptuous of me to do so without establishing a relationship of trust and mutual respect, which would allow us to exchange stories of our diverse experiences and appreciate one another’s perspectives.
When I ascend the bima or stand at the head of a classroom to teach, I am keenly aware that I have precious little time to convey the richness of Jewish tradition and the potency of Jewish ritual to a group of strangers. Thus, I must reach deep into my heart to extract the essential teachings from my core and then reach across the vast chasm that separates speaker and listener. I look honestly for what is “my Torah” and attempt to share it. Since I cannot see what is in another human’s heart, since I cannot know what anyone else finds at their core, how can I say whether another rabbi should or shouldn’t speak about Israel? I can merely say, at any given moment, whether I should speak.