Author Archives: Rachel Kobrin

Rachel Kobrin

About Rachel Kobrin

Rabbi Rachel Kobrin is the Assistant Rabbi at Congregation Agudas Achim (CAA), a vibrant spiritual community in Austin, Texas. A 2009 graduate of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, Rachel is passionate about building Jewish community and engaging people in meaningful prayer, acts of social justice, and transformative Jewish learning. Rachel was the co-founder of Minyan Malei Shirah, a soulful and song-filled Friday night minyan in Los Angeles and is spearheading Selah -- an innovative South Austin satellite community of CAA. She is on the faculty at the Austin Jewish Academy and is a contributing author in the book God: Jewish Choices for Struggling with the Ultimate (2008). Rachel is married to Rick Brody -- also a rabbi -- and they are the parents of Noa and Adin.

A Blessing for a Surrogate Mother

“Do you know of a prayer for a surrogate?” The question came over Facebook Chat a few nights ago, sent by a young woman in my community named Tara. In the coming days, Tara will begin carrying an embryo for a couple who were not able to conceive on their own.  For Tara, this has been a deep spiritual journey. She has two children of her own, and felt so blessed by easy and healthy pregnancies. And while cherishing her own beautiful sons, she felt overwhelmed by the deep pain and heartache that infertility causes to so many people. Tara knew she wanted to help.

In the Hebrew Bible, we meet many women who struggle with infertility. There’s Rachel, who watches her sister carry baby after baby, struggling herself to conceive her own beloved sons, Joseph and Benjamin. There’s Hannah, who is so deeply pained by her inability to bare a child, that when she prays with all of her heart, Eli the Cohen believes that her passion and her devotion is a sign of being drunk. Hannah sways back and forth, opening her mouth, and only releasing a voice that is loud enough for she herself to hear. This kavanah, or deep intention, is the model that we use for personal prayer today.

Possibly the most well known story of infertility is found in this week’s Torah portion—Vayera.  After struggling for years to conceive, Sarah is told that she and Abraham will have a child in their old age – and she laughs, and thus the child is given the name Yitzhak. Our rabbis teach that her laughter carries with it a feeling of surprise and even doubt. And yet, I prefer to focus on the essential truth that exists within big, unbridled laughter—tremendous, heartfelt, contagious joy. Sarah would finally know the extraordinary joy of being a mother.

Today, I know so many women and men who desperately want to experience that very same joy.

In just a few short days, an embryo will be implanted within Tara’s uterus, formed by a loving mother and father who are unable to create a baby without Tara’s help. And so, for Tara, I have written this blessing:

Makor HaChayim, Source of Life,

Inspire me to become a holy vessel, blessed with the opportunity to carry this precious seed, providing nourishment and warmth within the deep embrace of my womb.

Infuse me with patience. Through each hour of each day, may I have the strength to feel the blessing of the moment, knowing that with each breath that we share, life is closer to being renewed.

Rekindle within me courage, for in holding this seed, I am not merely making a child—I am also creating a mother and a father. I am forming a family. And within that family, a whole universe of possibility dwells.

And at this time, especially, instill within me the power and potential of love, that I may remain tender and devoted to all those who are connected to my heart.  As my body changes and grows, so may my capacity to embody love expand and unfold as well.

Posted on October 18, 2013

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Unleavened Equality

I will never forget the moment when my daughter came out. She was 5 years old. We were eating dinner as a family. My daughter put down her fork, placed her hand on the table, looked at my husband and me, and said “Mommy, Abba, I’m not going to marry a woman.”

Our daughter had come out as straight.

My husband and I both felt that it was important not to make any assumptions about our kids’ sexual orientation, and to make a concerted effort to reflect that value in conversation. So when we spoke about marriage with our kids, we always said, “If you fall in love with a man or a woman and want to get married,” etc. Turns out that, at least at this point in our kids’ development, both our son and daughter identify as straight. But it could have been different, and we knew that from before they were conceived.

Last week, when I changed my Facebook profile picture to an equality sign made out of matzah, my daughter asked what that was all about. I explained that the United States Supreme Court was in the process of discussing marriage equality and Prop 8 — the same legislation that our family protested four years ago when we lived in California — and that the equality sign affirms that both gay and straight couples who love each other should be able to get married. Her response? “Well, of course.”

But the matzah equality picture actually reflects much more. At our Passover seders last week, Jews throughout the world said “In every generation, we each must see ourselves as if we personally left Egypt as part of the Exodus.” In other words, we are called upon to not simply understand the Israelites’ journey from slavery to freedom as the trajectory of our ancestors; rather, we must experience it as our own journey, allowing the story to seep into our very being and inspire us toward further action in our day. In every generation, we must remember our history — and we must use it as a catalyst, inspiring us to have the courage to move humankind to the next stage of liberation.

That next stage of human liberation is right in front of us. The matzah illustrates that this is not merely a secular issue: This is a Jewish issue as well. As a rabbi, my support for marriage equality is not in spite of my religious convictions; rather, it is because of my religious convictions that I stand strong on this issue. In every generation we must remember our oppression and we must work tirelessly to prevent the oppression of others. This is the Jewish way.

I have stood under a chuppah with many loving couples, creating a meaningful space for them to publicly celebrate their deep connection, transforming their partnership into a marriage. I long to live in a country that supports my ability as a rabbi to affirm the love of two consenting adults — whether gay or straight — who want to make a holy commitment to one another.

The word for marriage in Hebrew is kiddushin. Loosely translated as sanctification or holiness, kiddushin literally means separating, making distinct. From my experience working with couples, I can guarantee that each marriage is distinct. They each come with their own blessings and their own challenges. What they have in common is love. Commitment. A desire to spend a lifetime together. A dream of creating happiness with one another. A promise to hold each other up in difficult moments. A conviction to leave this world a little better than the couple found it. Each couple I have married truly believes that they live a more enriched, more meaningful life together than they ever would apart.

Is this kind of holiness limited to straight people? Of course not. It takes love, kindness, respect, a desire to support and build something greater than oneself, the courage to look inward and expand outward, a sense of humor and whole lot of work. Anybody who has a healthy marriage can tell you about that work. Because marriage is really hard. Why would we deny committed, holy love to courageous, determined people simply because of their gender?

My daughter may be straight, but even were she gay, my dedication to this issue would not stem from its impact on my own family. I am passionate about marriage equality because there are many, many people throughout these United States who are currently being denied simple rights that so many of us take for granted.

In every generation, we each must see ourselves as if we personally left Egypt as part of the Exodus.

It is time to mobilize, to part the seas and walk together to the promised land that the founders of our great nation dreamt into existence. It is time to help our nation become a place that is truly built on “liberty and justice for all.”

Posted on April 5, 2013

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Spicing Up Your Seder

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As a rabbi who also happens to be a mother of small kids, I am often asked for creative ideas to enliven a seder. I have decided to dedicate this post to sharing some of these ideas. Feel free to pass it around, and please use the comments section below to share some of your own creative rituals.

The truth is, our family’s seders are long – very long – and our kids are back and forth from the table all evening. They are present for the pieces that are meaningful to them, and they play during the sections that feel more “adult.” I believe that just as it is important to engage the kids in the seder rituals, it is also important to engage the adults in deep thought and discovery. It is also vital for our kids to see that the seder is not simply a pediatric ritual, but rather an experience that speaks to people of each and every age. Therefore, this list includes ideas for both kids and adults. Enjoy!

  1. Karpas: This is my number one suggestions for keeping a seder strong. When we dip parsley in salt water, we say “borei pri ha’adamah” – the blessing over the fruit of the earth. This means that we have actually created an opening to eat any “fruit” that comes from the earth, i.e. vegetables – broccoli, carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, artichokes, asparagus… even strawberries dipped in chocolate! In fact, since we’ve already dipped in salt water, we figure we might as well keep up the dipping – which is what the well-to-do in Greco-Roman times did at their symposium banquets, the main inspiration for the seder.  So… balsamic vinaigrette, salsa, olive oil, mayonnaise – anything that you can dip vegetables in can make this section even more fun. In our family, we have found that people are much more willing to engage in rich seder conversation when they have a full plate of appetizers in front of them. We are excited to hear all questions, but “When do we eat?” is far less relevant, because we are grazing throughout the entire seder.
  2. Mah Nishtanah: Did you know that, according to the Talmud, you are only obligated to ask the Four Questions if other questions have not yet been asked?  The Four Questions exist as a way of sparking a questioning environment. In addition to singing these questions, we can do other things to inspire questions as well. The rabbis of the Talmud speak about clearing the host’s plate before s/he has eaten in order to attract people’s attention and invite questions (Why in the world are you doing THAT?) We too can do things a little bit differently to get the questions rolling. Put odd toys on the table. Wear something strange on your head. Once people start asking questions, rewarding questioners with candy and other goodies (thrown across the table, of course!) is a great way to keep the inquisitive nature of the conversation ripe.
  3. Speaking of Questions: Pre-plan some of them. Look through the Haggadah.  Look online. Ask your Rabbi. Come up with some key discussion topics that will engage your guests in deeper and more creative thinking. An example: How can matzah be both “the bread of our affliction” and a symbol of our freedom? How can one item symbolize both concepts, opposite in nature? Discuss!
  4. Costumes: Invite guests to come dressed in character. Or, better yet, provide a costume box to enable people to grab some garb before they sit down.
  5. Passover Poetry: Invite your guests to come with their own Passover haikus.  Haikus are fairly easy to write, and can be very funny and also incredibly poignant. Incorporating a range of haikus, written by guests, can add to the creative vibe of any seder. Got a really creative guest list? Invite them to come with a “poetry slam”-style piece on the topic of “slavery” or “freedom.”
  6. Turn Your Table into a Beit Midrash: Bring articles, Jewish texts, and poetry and pass them out to your guests. Have your guests sit with a chevrutah partner and learn their piece for 10 or 15 minutes, and then regroup and invite each partnership to share what they have learned.
  7. Niggunim and Songs: Don’t be afraid to sing, and others will follow. Song inspires the soul, and even a song leader who is not a Broadway star can enliven a seder with spirit and joy.  There are great resources online for traditional seder songs, as well as Passover lyrics written to modern and funny melodies.
  8. We Were Slaves in Egypt: Tell the story in your own words. Put down the Haggadah, and place yourself into the world of ancient Egypt. WE were slaves… when we left Egypt, were we scared? Were we excited? What did we bring? As we stood at the sea, what did we see? There is the possibility here of inviting guests to take on different roles, speaking from the “I” perspective, and reliving the voyage of our ancestors. Invite one guest to serve as the moderator. (Oprah Winfrey style!)
  9. Now We Are Free: Invite guests to bring an item that represents their freedom.  This could be an object that reminds them of an aspect of freedom, or it could be something that represents an aspect of their lives that would be very different if they were not free. Ask guests to put their item on the table and share its story to your seder community.
  10. Don’t Be Afraid to Move: The seder doesn’t have to happen at a dinning room table. Some years, we have done the whole first half of the seder in the living room, Bedouin style. This enables guests to sit on couches, chairs, and on pillows and back-jacks on the floor, and invites kids to move around, while still participating in the discussion.
  11. Scallions Aren’t Just For Eating: There is a Persian custom of hitting each other with scallions during Dayenu. The scallions represent the whips of our oppressors. Although this may seem a little morbid, young and old alike have a wonderful time violating social norms and slamming each other with green onions.
  12. Orange on the Seder Plate: The orange on the seder plate has come to symbolize full inclusion of the GLBT community, as well as women, in modern day Judaism. Encourage guests to consider how we make our communities open and welcoming of people who may seem different from us. This can include folks with disabilities, people who are intermarried, divorced, struggling financially, etc.
  13. Become Elijah the Prophet: Tradition tells us that we have a cup for Elijah at our seder, in the hope that he will come and usher in the messianic age. We don’t need to wait for the messiah to bring an end to injustice, slavery, and destruction.  We can connect with the piece of Elijah that resides in each of us, and work for a better tomorrow right here, today. Invite guests to articulate what they can do to create more light and more holiness in our world.
  14. Miriam’s Cup:  Tradition teaches us that a well of water followed Miriam wherever she went, and quenched the thirst of the people Israel. We call our Torah a “mayim chayim,” living waters, because the customs of the Jewish people sustain us emotionally and spiritually and fill our lives with meaning. Invite guests to speak about a particular experience that has sustained them this past year.
  15. Modern Day Slavery: On Pesach, we tell the story of our people’s trajectory, our people’s movement from the pain of slavery to the joy of freedom. There are people today, right here in the United States and throughout the world, who are still enslaved. We call this human trafficking. Educate guests about the realities of slavery today, and encourage them to take a stand in fighting these horrifying modern atrocities.

Chag Sameach! May we all be blessed with meaningful and dynamic seders, and may the entire holiday of Passover be sweet. Next year in Jerusalem!

Posted on March 22, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Purim Revelations

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As a child, I looked forward to Purim each year. I spent weeks planning my costume and savored the excitement of the annual carnival and the entertaining Megillah reading at my synagogue. Purim represented pure, unobstructed joy.

It wasn’t until I was an adult that I came to experience the deeper meaning of Purim. Our rabbis teach that Purim (a day of exuberant, drunken celebration) and Yom Kippur (our holiest day of atonement) have much in common. In fact, the Tikunei Zohar, a section of Jewish mystical literature, makes a delightful pun using the names of these two holidays. Yom Kippur is often referred to in our liturgy as Yom HaKippurim (the Day of Atonements). Our rabbis adjust the phrase slightly to read Yom K’Purim, meaning “A day like Purim.”

On Yom Kippur, we strive to come to terms with the apparent chaos of our lives. When faced with the reality and complexity of the human condition, we turn to tefilah (prayer), teshuvah (repentance) and tzedakah (righteous acts of giving) as vehicles for making ourselves whole. We wear all white (a costume of sorts) and bang on our chests, fasting and engaging in deep personal reflection that will ideally leave us in an ecstatic place of restoration.

On Purim, we also strive to confront the chaos and complexities of human existence, and likewise we ecstatically celebrate our ability to transform these obstacles into entryways to a better tomorrow. We chant the scroll of Esther — the story of how our people came frighteningly close to being annihilated at the hands of Haman and his followers, but miraculously survived due to the brave conviction of Queen Esther and her uncle Mordechai. We remember how, through human courage and connection, our people were able to claim control over their destiny. And so, on Purim we celebrate the survival of the Jewish people with all of our kishkes — drinking, eating and acting silly.

On Yom Kippur, we do the internal work that is necessary to improve ourselves and our communities. Five months later, on Purim, we do the external work. On Purim, we are commanded to eat a festive meal. Each of us is obligated to take part in this celebratory gathering, rich and poor alike. We are also commanded to give matanot la’evyonim, gifts to the poor. During the remainder of the year, we give tzedakah, righteous charity. Maimonides, the 12th-century philosopher and legal scholar, teaches that the highest form of tzedakah is teaching a person a trade so she can help herself in the future. The second highest form of tzedakah is mutually anonymous giving.

Matanot la’evyonim — gifts to the poor — are neither proactive trade classes nor anonymous donations. Matanot la’evyonim come in the form of food or money that are meant to be used on Purim day for a feast. And matanot la’evyonim are given directly — into the palm of the hand. On Purim, we are forbidden from passing a poor person on the street without stopping, truly seeing him and sharing food. On Purim, we must see everybody in our midst, even those we may be in the habit of ignoring, and we must unite as a community.

Purim forces us to experience the wonder of a world, for one day, in which there is no 99 percent and no 1 percent, a world in which both the billionaires and the working class eat a celebratory meal. We remember that through our people’s ability to unite in the story of Esther, we were able to change the course of history. And so we imagine a time in the future when everybody will truly see each other without shame, and everybody will enjoy a beautiful meal, like we do on Purim, each and every day.

Esther, the heroine of the Purim story, conceals her Jewish identity when she marries the king. Her name includes the root letters of the word “hidden.” However, in order for Esther to do the transformative work of saving her people, she must reveal her Jewish identity. Our rabbis teach that when we dress up on Purim, we should pick a costume that not only disguises our immediate appearance, but also reveals an inner piece of us that we keep hidden during much of the year. With this intention, we use the act of covering to uncover, the act of disguising to reveal an inner essence.

And so we say that Yom Kippur is a day like Purim, and Purim is a day like Yom Kippur. Some Jews repent hard on Yom Kippur, and some Jews party hard on Purim. In truth, both holidays are essential. Our internal reflection on Yom Kippur and our external celebration on Purim both propel us past life’s moments of chaos and pain, and help us embrace our potential to reveal goodness and light.

Posted on February 22, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Mock Jewish Divorce

It’s become almost a cliche program at American Jewish summer camps. The mock Jewish wedding teaches kids, through an interactive and improvisational experience, the many beautiful traditions that create the beginnings of a joyful Jewish marriage. Last summer, at our synagogue’s week long Vacation Torah Camp, we lived out the cliche, marrying my seven year old daughter to our senior rabbi’s eight year old son.  As is the case at Jewish camps throughout the nation, our kids took part in all aspects of the ceremony, from the bedeken (veiling of the bride) and the signing of the ketubah to the shtick and simchah dancing at the party. It was truly a celebration to remember.

And yet this summer, our synagogue’s camp may have walked on uncharted turf as we performed what was likely the first mock divorce in Jewish summer camp history.

The idea actually came from the kids themselves. “Are we going to do another mock wedding?” they asked. “No, that was last year” we responded. “Well then what are we going to do? A mock what? A mock divorce?”

Currently in America, 50% of all marriages end in divorce.  Although divorce is not seen as a desirable end in Judaism, neither is it viewed as a shameful. Judaism understands that all marriages do not remain happy and healthy — being in relationship is tough, and as people evolve in their self identities and as well as their understandings of each other, they are sometimes no longer able to remain in a healthy marriage. It is for this reason that we have the get, or the Jewish document of divorce

Although the possibility of divorce is cautiously embraced by Judaism, the reality of the ceremony is deeply problematic. A divorce must be initiated by the man, and cannot be declared by a woman.  The reality of this can be very problematic and has left us with the situation of the agunah – a woman who is metaphorically “chained” to her husband and, because she has not received a get, cannot be remarried. It is for this reason that rabbis have devised prenuptial clauses to protect wives in the event that their husbands refuse to grant them a divorce. As a rabbi, I will not perform a wedding without a prenuptial clause that protects a woman from such a fate. And yet, despite the fact that I speak very honestly with couples I plan to marry about the need for this protective document, I had never thought to create a “mock divorce” as a learning experience for our campers.

At Vacation Torah Camp, we came to realize that our kids’ request was actually an extraordinary invitation. Our campers were initiating a real conversation about relationships, about struggle, and about creating closure when necessary.

On Thursday afternoon our campers gathered around a table, and through the lens of Jewish ritual, we engaged them in a deeply important conversation. Noa and Emet, who had been married the summer before, would now be divorced. Our campers shared their feelings of sadness — “We thought you were such a good couple!” They exclaimed. “But we want to support you if this is what you need.”

We spoke with our campers about the real questions with which couples struggle — why might it sometimes be OK for a two people to want to start their lives anew? What does it mean to support people in difficult times? How are the obligations of marriage different than the obligations of friendship? How does separation sometimes help people become more “whole?”  How can something that is very sad also be important? Why do we have a Jewish ceremony to commemorate the finality of a marriage?

Jewish summer camp is a wonderful place to celebrate the joys of Jewish living. It can also be a safe space to explore the struggles, the painful moments, and the times of loss. It is important that we teach our kids that Judaism is fully present with us for both. Jewish religious rituals can help us to create openings and closings – and sometimes both, at the same time. We hope that by creating a vehicle for our kids to explore this very real part of the human experience, they will know that Judaism is there to help them through even the darkest of times, and they will feel comfortable continuing to ask their deepest questions.

Posted on September 7, 2012

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

The Friday the Rabbi Made Challah

A couple of years ago, I attended a young adult challah-baking event here in Austin.  Some of the young women who were there that evening turned to me, a female rabbi, and wanted to know my challah-baking secrets. challah

“The truth is” I confessed, “I never bake challah.”

“REALLY?” They said with great surprise.

It occurred to me that we would never presume that male rabbis were baking challah, but somehow as a female rabbi, people had the expectation that I at least had some experience with this craft.  But when would I find time for such things? Thursday and Friday are consumed with meetings and preparation for Shabbat at the synagogue. Where could I find time – and energy — for challah baking?

I often joke with my husband, who is also a rabbi, that the old adage – “the shoemaker’s children have no shoes”– rings true in our household.  We have two children, and although both of them claim to love to bake challah (they’ve had such experiences with their grandmothers and at school) they have never baked challah with their mom.  One thoughtful stay-at-home mom in my congregation recently offered to have my kids over for a challah baking party with her family, since clearly I didn’t have the time to create such opportunities for my own children.

This past Friday, somehow this all changed.  Don’t get me wrong – my day was plenty busy.  In fact, I was in meetings from 9:00AM – 5:30PM, straight.  Yet, this past Friday I had the incredible urge to bake challah.  Maybe it was all of this recent talk in the media about work-life balance that put me over the edge. Or maybe it was just the reality that, although Austin is known for many amazing and wonderful things, excellent store-bought Kosher challah is not one of them.  Whatever it was, I arrived home at 5:40PM and said “We’re making challah!”

My husband’s first response – “Have you seen Rabbah Sara Hurwitz’s article in the Jewish Journal?  She just made challah for the first time as well.” I had not seen the article, and didn’t have time to read it until after Shabbat. (I had to make my challah, after all.) But something must be in the air. Challah-less female rabbis from across the movements are suddenly baking challah.

I had very little time before candle lighting at 8:17PM. After finding a fairly simple recipe on the internet, buying and mixing the ingredients and then kneading the dough with the kids, we realized that we really only had about five minutes of rise-time. Miraculously, what we created was far from matzah – I would never have known from the finished product that we hadn’t had time to let our dough rise.

So how was it?  It was pretty good.  Not the best challah I’ve ever tasted, but a good first try. And the kids had a blast, taking great pride in their creations. I think we may have begun a weekly challah baking ritual.

And maybe the next time this female rabbi shows up at a challah-baking event, she will have a thing or two to share.

Posted on July 15, 2012

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Anticipating Tiferet she’b’Tiferet

Almost eight years ago, on the evening of April 22nd, after a full day of labor, my husband Rick and I got into the car and drove a mile and a half to Cedars-Sinai Hospital. Noa Tiferet Kobrin-Brody, our first child, would be born less than two hours later. Between the intensity of the contractions, Rick and I observed the beauty of the thinnest possible crescent moon that shone brightly in the deep sky. Rosh Chodesh (the beginning of a new Hebrew month) had just ended, and what we saw on that eventful evening was the first sign of the new moon. We knew it heralded an auspicious new chapter in our lives; but it also stirred a very special memory: Rick’s grandmother, who’s name was Doris, loved the crescent moon — she thought it was one of nature’s greatest beauties. Rick’s family had in fact named it a “mommy–moon” in honor of Doris.

Rick and I had been “old-school” and did not know, prior to Noa’s birth, if our baby was a boy or a girl. We had thought, if she was a girl, that we would name her Noa, after Rick’s grandfather, Nathaniel. We wanted to remember Rick’s grandmother through our child’s middle name, but we were struggling to find a suitable girl’s name that honored Doris. The crescent moon changed that. On that night in April, the crescent moon — the mommy-moon — actually had a Jewish name: Tiferet she’b’Tiferet.

Each spring, we Jews have the opportunity to usher progressively more holiness into our lives through the sacred act of counting the Omer. The 49 days between the first day of Passover and the first day of Shavuot provide a perfect square in time — seven weeks of seven days; each one gets counted as a critical step in reenacting the transformative journey from the Egyptian Exodus to the Revelation at Mt. Sinai. The mystics understood this s’firah — this period of counting — as an opportunity to contemplate 49 different combinations of 7 fundamental Divine qualities, or s’firot. Each week has one of these divine qualities connected to it, and so does each day of the week. This means that each day is a unique pairing from these 7 s’firot — the 4th day of the 2nd week, the 5th day of the 7th week, etc. Each pairing suggests a certain way of being in the world and of experiencing reality. Once each week, the same s’firah appears twice — the same number day within the same number week. This alignment offers double the power for actualizing that one quality.

Noa Tiferet was born on the 17th day of the Omer, the 3rd day of the 3rd week, Tiferet she’b’Tiferet — the day of beauty within the week of beauty. One of the beauties of the Jewish calendar is its lunar consistency, meaning that the 17th day of the Omer, Tiferet she’b’Tiferet, always falls at the first appearance of the thinnest crescent moon after Passover. Each year on Noa Tiferet’s Hebrew birthday, as we count the Omer and look up into the sky, we are greeted by that beautiful crescent shining down on us. And each year, we remember Doris Sack, a woman who lived to the full age of 93, and taught us to appreciate all of life’s beauties, especially the subtle and delicate crescent moon.

Posted on April 20, 2012

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Shining our Light on the Hidden Spaces

At the beginning of the night of the 14th of Nisan (the evening before Passover), check for chametz (leavened products) by the light of a candle, in the holes and in the hidden spots, in all the places that chametz might have entered.
The Shulkhan Arukh, 431:1, 16th Century codified source of Jewish Law

As I begin my Passover cleaning, I am keeping my eyes on the prize: a home that is free of chametz.  The quote above describes the final act of Passover cleaning.  This experience, performed in the dark, with one tiny flame, reminds us that although we are each small individuals — and a small people — we have a profound impact on our own redemption.

On the night before Passover, after all of our cupboards have been cleaned of chametz and our kitchens have been made kosher for Passover, Jews all over the world search their homes with a candle in one hand and a feather and wooden spoon in the other. Tradition tells us to plant little pieces of bread throughout our homes, and then, in the dark of night, to search for them. These pieces of chametz are then collected and burned the next morning, before we say the final proclamation ridding ourselves of any chametz that we may have unwittingly missed in our cleaning.

This ritual — which is great fun for little ones — is not only about Passover cleaning.  Chametz symbolizes the swollen parts that exist within us — our egos, our wrongdoings, our imperfections.  The process of cleaning out our cupboards is symbolic of the internal cleaning we desire to do at this time of year.

Why, then, does the Shulkhan Arukh tell us to do this final act of cleaning in the depths of the night?  Would it not make more sense to do this in broad daylight, when all can be seen?

No.  We engage in this final search in darkness of the night for a reason.  On the night before Pesach, as we stand with a candle in hand, we recognize that there is much darkness in our world, and that we are continually in need of redemption — both in our own personal lives and in the universal human struggles that plague our larger communities.  We acknowledge that this redemption cannot come without our commitment to being the very candle we hold.  It is our job to be the flame, truly shining our light into the darkness, into the crevices and holes that are filled with our personal chametz; by facing our most personal struggles, we begin our self-improvement for the coming year.  We must not limit our light to our own crevices, however.  We must also shine our light into the larger world, illuminating the various ills of society and doing our part to solve our more universal problems.

The Sfat Emet, a 19th Century Chasidic Commentator, teaches that we each have a pure kernel of God within us.  This kernal is renewed each year at Passover, and it is our job, for the remainder of the year, to allow this kernal to emerge and expand… to spread this deep goodness.

This kernal is our candle, our flame.

Each Passover we tell of our past redemption and we dream of our redemption in the future.  May we strive this Passover to move from dream to action.  May we connect with that Godly flame inside of ourselves, and may we embody it.  May we allow that light to shine brightly in the dark areas of our lives, spotlighting the corners where there is chametz, and enabling us to become better individuals as we work to create a more just world.

Posted on March 23, 2012

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The Holiness of Purim

As a child, I looked forward to Purim each year. I spent weeks planning my costume and savored the excitement of the annual carnival and the entertaining megillah reading at my synagogue. Purim represented pure, unobstructed joy.

It wasn’t until I was an adult that I came to experience the deeper meaning of Purim. Our rabbis teach that Purim (a day of exuberant, drunken celebration) and Yom Kippur (our holiest day of atonement) have much in common. In fact, the Tikunei Zohar, a section of Jewish mystical literature, makes a delightful pun using the names of these two holidays. Yom Kippur is often referred to in our liturgy as Yom HaKippurim (the Day of Atonements). Our rabbis adjust the phrase slightly to read Yom K’Purim, meaning “A day like Purim.”

On Yom Kippur, we strive to come to terms with the apparent chaos of our lives. When faced with the reality and complexity of the human condition, we turn to tefilah (prayer), teshuvah (repentance) and tzedakah (righteous acts of giving) as vehicles for making ourselves whole. We wear all white (a costume of sorts) and bang on our chests, fasting and engaging in deep personal reflection that will ideally leave us in an ecstatic place of restoration.

On Purim, we also strive to confront the chaos and complexities of human existence, and likewise we ecstatically celebrate our ability to transform these obstacles into entryways to a better tomorrow. We chant the scroll of Esther — the story of how our people came frighteningly close to being annihilated at the hands of Haman and his followers, but miraculously survived due to the brave conviction of Queen Esther and her uncle Mordechai. We remember how, through human courage and connection, our people were able to claim control over their destiny. And so, on Purim we celebrate the survival of the Jewish people with all of our kishkes — drinking, eating and acting silly.

On Yom Kippur, we do the internal work that is necessary to improve ourselves and our communities. Five months later, on Purim, we do the external work. On Purim, we are commanded to eat a festive meal. Each of us is obligated to take part in this celebratory gathering, rich and poor alike. We are also commanded to give matanot la’evyonim, gifts to the poor. During the remainder of the year, we give tzedakah, righteous charity. Maimonides, the 12th-century philosopher and legal scholar, teaches that the highest form of tzedakah is teaching a person a trade so she can help herself in the future. The second highest form of tzedakah is mutually anonymous giving.

Matanot la’evyonim — gifts to the poor — are neither proactive trade classes nor anonymous donations. Matanot la’evyonim come in the form of food or money that are meant to be used on Purim day for a feast. And matanot la’evyonim are given directly — into the palm of the hand. On Purim, we are forbidden from passing a poor person on the street without stopping, truly seeing him and sharing food. On Purim, we must see everybody in our midst, even those we may be in the habit of ignoring, and we must unite as a community.

Purim forces us to experience the wonder of a world, for one day, in which there is no 99 percent and no 1 percent, a world in which both the billionaires and the working class eat a celebratory meal. We remember that through our people’s ability to unite in the story of Esther, we were able to change the course of history. And so we imagine a time in the future when everybody will truly see each other without shame, and everybody will enjoy a beautiful meal, like we do on Purim, each and every day.

Esther, the heroine of the Purim story, conceals her Jewish identity when she marries the king. Her name includes the root letters of the word “hidden.” However, in order for Esther to do the transformative work of saving her people, she must reveal her Jewish identity. Our rabbis teach that when we dress up on Purim, we should pick a costume that not only disguises our immediate appearance, but also reveals an inner piece of us that we keep hidden during much of the year. With this intention, we use the act of covering to uncover, the act of disguising to reveal an inner essence.

And so we say that Yom Kippur is a day like Purim, and Purim is a day like Yom Kippur. Some Jews repent hard on Yom Kippur, and some Jews party hard on Purim. In truth, both holidays are essential. Our internal reflection on Yom Kippur and our external celebration on Purim both propel us past life’s moments of chaos and pain, and help us embrace our potential to reveal goodness and light.

Posted on March 9, 2012

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Judaism and the Environment: The Time Is Now

It is a tree of life to those who hold it close and all of its supporters are happy. Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all of its paths lead to peace. Proverbs 3:18

This was one of the very first Hebrew songs I learned. Even as a young child, I knew it was special because it was the melody we sang as we ushered the Torah back into the aron hakodesh — the holy ark where it is kept.

The book of Proverbs, attributed to King Solomon, was written during a time when even our royalty was more innately connected to the earth than your average suburban or city-living Jew today. King Solomon — and most who lived in ancient Israel — surely understood the tremendous power of the metaphor associating Torah with a tree. Just as a tree has roots and branches, so too does Torah. Its roots date back some 3,300 years, to the Jewish narrative of Mt. Sinai — and even earlier, to the formative stories of our people that it tells. Its branches stretch well into the future, carrying generations of Jews who have, through the process of intellectual debate and spiritual discovery, enabled Judaism to evolve and continue to speak the language of modern society. Just as a tree produces fruit, so too does Torah. This fruit comes in the form of mitzvot, or commandments — active ingredients in a recipe for purposeful living. As children, we cherish the opportunity to climb a tree.  So too, we strive to ascend Torah, grasping its multiple branches of interpretation and reaching for higher meaning.

Our Rabbis’ decision to celebrate this metaphor offers a good hint not only at how their society felt about the Torah, but also how they related to trees. The Torah is precious. We hold the Torah, kiss it before and after we read from it, and do everything we can to prevent it from falling. So too, we understand that we must care for our trees. We can swing from their branches, but we must be careful not to break them. We can eat from their fruit, but we are forbidden from destroying the forests they comprise.

This past Wednesday, Jews around the world celebrated Tu Bishvat, the Jewish New Year of the Trees. First documented in the Mishnah in about 200 CE, Tu Bishvat falls in the midst of winter, when trees are bare — not a time when one might expect a holiday that celebrates the glory of nature. And yet, maybe that is the very reason why this date was so aptly picked. It is at this time, when we are not necessarily cognizant of the beauty of the trees around us, that we most need a holiday to remind us of their ultimate potential. In this midway point of winter, the sap begins to travel up the roots, enabling the buds to form and flowers to bloom in the coming months of spring. Once spring arrives, we will likely be more cognizant of our relationship with the natural world, but during the winter we need a nudge to remind us of the glorious process of renewal that lies ahead.

In recent years, Tu Bishvat has been adopted by environmentalists as a Jewish earth day of sorts. Through an effort to combine Jewish spirituality and environmental action, Jewish environmentalists have stood alongside other religious activists in using a sacred voice to advocate for the future of our planet.

The midrash from Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:19 reads, “When God created Adam, God took him around all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him: ‘See how wonderful and praiseworthy all of my creations are. Everything I have created, I created for you. Be careful not to destroy My world; for if you destroy it, there is no one who will fix it after you.’”

This midrash was written 1300 years ago, yet it could not ring more true for us today.  We are in the midst of environmental crisis. We must make thoughtful, resolute steps if we wish to live in a world with clean air, edible and healthful food, and a stable climate.  The vitality of creation depends on our ability to find sustainable ways of stewarding our planet, and this will only come through a combination of personal commitments and governmental legislation.

This year Tu Bishvat fell during the week of the Interfaith Power and Light National Preach-In on Global Warming.  The preach-in is an effort to encourage religious leaders throughout our nation to speak to their communities about the devastating impact we continue to have on our planet.  As we humans engage in the burning fossil fuels, deforestation, and problematic agricultural and industrial activities, we unleash billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the environment.  This carbon dioxide mixes with water vapor and other gasses in the atmosphere, trapping heat like the glass on a greenhouse and creating devastating climate change here on earth.  “The vast majority of scientists now agree that our climate is being threatened in an unprecedented way,” Asserts the Reverend Sally Bingham, Founder and President of IPL, “And we’re already seeing and feeling some of the devastating consequences. I have always maintained that religious people should lead the environmental movement. If we aren’t going to take care of creation, we can’t expect others to. People from all religions have a shared purpose in doing our part to keep God’s earth clean and healthy for the future.”

Congregants in synagogues, churches, and mosques throughout the country will be offered 5×7 postcards at services this weekend that they can mail to their senators, asking them to own their moral responsibility and support the Clean Air Act.

Bingham asserts that religious leaders not only have a responsibility to speak the truth, but also have a unique ability to reach those who have not yet thought deeply about these issues. She tells congregants that the environment is not a political issue, but rather one of theology – “It’s a matter of life and death.”  People often respond by saying: “I’ve just never thought of it like that – this means something to me and is going to make a difference in my life and the way I behave.”

In Judaism, we do a lot of thinking, debating, and reflecting – but the beauty of Judaism is that it is not simply esoteric and spiritual; it is also grounded and practical. Ideally, all of these discussions lead us to action that will improve our communities and our world.  As we move from Tu Bishvat into National Preach-In Shabbat, may we be resolute about turning our intentions into action.  It is time to take an account of our carbon footprint and recommit ourselves to environmental action — both through personal reform and national advocacy — before it’s too late.

Posted on February 10, 2012

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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