I was hip for a week. For one week, I had a stripe of purple hair mixed in with my usual brown shiny locks. I loved it! I felt bolder, braver, and more fun. Most of all it just made me smile to see it in the mirror.
Frankly, I needed to smile. A couple of weeks earlier, a good friend died of aggressive breast cancer. Her untimely death woke me up. I understood in a new way how fragile and short life is. It is a cliché that we need to live life as fully as possible while we have it—but it is true. We do. My friend lived life loud, literally. She had a big presence and a booming voice. You always knew when she was in the room. She embraced all things silly and fun, and let you know you were missing out if you did not participate.
In the midst of my sadness, I realized that I needed more fun in my life. I was missing out on some things. Since adolescence, I have wanted to dye my hair some funky color, purple, blue, hot pink. Yet, I never have. I felt the time had arrived.
So, I walked in to a hair salon and asked to dye my hair. The hair stylist suggested I go an easier route and put in a pre-dyed hair extension. She explained that it would last a month or two and was cheaper and less complicated than dye. Five minutes later I had purple hair!
I felt liberated. Finally, my inner punk was on full display.
I texted friends and posted a picture on Facebook. The out pouring of joy and support was immediate. My favorite Facebook comment was “Ok, You’re my rabbi.” I was further astounded by the number of women who told me that they were jealous, that they wanted to be that brave, that they wanted to do it too!
Sadly, a week later, my purple hair extension silently slipped out of my hair. Apparently, my never before dyed or processed hair was too “healthy and silky” to firmly hold it in place. If only I had been more of a rebel when I was younger….
I would have liked it to last longer; however, the week with purple hair was a revelation. I learned several things. Many, many women like me are putting off being their whole selves, or true selves. I was astounded by the number of women who shared with me how they wanted to do something similar, yet something was holding them back.
As a rabbi, I encourage others to be their best selves, to bring their dreams and aspirations in to reality. So if you have something you want to do, be it dying your hair a funky color or changing a major part of your life—just do it! Life is short, if you let your fears and doubts hold you back from being who you want to be and achieving what you want, then you will miss out on something precious.
I also learned that people are far less judgmental than you think when you present yourself strongly and confidently. When people asked why I had purple in my hair, I answered honestly, I needed a little fun in my life. I got smiles and nods in return.
I love doing out of the box things as a rabbi. I have never fit into boxes very well. My sense is that most of us don’t. So watch out! The purple hair is likely to come back. Or I may try something else….I am open to ideas. How else can I express my inner punk?
“Do not go gentle in to that Good Night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light”
These two verses by Dylan Thomas came in to my head the other night unbidden and would not leave. I had not read this poem written by Thomas about his dying father since high school. Yet, the verses echoed through my head. In order to quell the refrain, I went to find my battered and much beloved copy of The Norton’s Anthology of Poetry. To my great surprise, the book opened immediately to the page the poem was on, as if it knew just what I was looking for. God works in mysterious ways.
Reading the poem in its entirety, I burst into tears. Yes, I thought. This is how I feel. All around me the light seems to be dying, and I am angry. I am angry that in 2014, we have an African American president, yet black men are incarcerated and shot on the street by cops in ever increasing numbers. I am angry and scared that an epidemic like Ebola is killing so many in Africa and is making its way to our shores. And on a more personal level, I am angry that cancer can capriciously cut short a vivacious person’s life.
Life is not fair, and I am angry.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
I am not good with anger as an emotion. In fact I hate it, I makes me uncomfortable. I don’t know how to control it or express it in a positive way.
As this refrain, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” echoes in my head I realize that I have to do something, or it will tear me apart.
Meditation and prayer do not calmly disburse it.
Yelling at God through tears does not help either.
So, I have decided to embrace my anger. I am going to wear it proudly, and try to use it for good. God gave us anger to be a motivating force. The best social movements were started because people were angry about the status quo. Abraham angry at his father, rebelled against his culture and created a new religion. Moses angry at the mistreatment of Hebrew slaves led them out of Egypt. The daughters of Zelophechad, angry that they could not inherit their father’s property because they were women, petitioned Moses to change the law, and won. In modern times, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and African American civil rights would not have been won without righteous anger fueling the causes.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Instead of trying to carefully stomp it out the rage. I will use it to feed the light. Pirkei Avot teaches “You are not obligated to finish a task but neither are you free to neglect it.” I may not solve the problem of police brutality in America, or find the cure or Ebola. I may not be able to save my friend from cancer, but my anger will fuel me to keep trying to make the world a better place.
The absence of this anger would leave me with nothing. No will to move forward in the world. So for now, I am holding on to it in all of its fiery glory.
“Do not go gentle in to that Good Night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
“May you be Written in the Book of Life” is such a nice phrase to utter at this time of year, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Most years I don’t think much about it. It is easy to ignore the weight of the words when everyone in your life is healthy.
This year is different. A close friend is struggling with aggressive breast cancer. Instead of casually saying these words, I am fervently praying them on her behalf.
Themes of life and death wind their way through out the liturgy on the High Holidays. The Torah and Haftorah portions speak of the struggle to conceive and bring new life in to the world. The Unetanah Tokef prayer which wails, “Who will live and who will die. Who by flood. Who by fire. Who by hunger …” speaks plainly of the many ways we may die. Most years, I acknowledge these themes, yet concentrate most of my prayers on myself, praying to be a better person, mother, and teacher.
This year is different. This year I am praying for my friend. The mother of young children should not suffer from such a serious illness. It should not be this way.
The liturgy states that “repentance, prayer, and charity, will avert the severe decree.” I do not find this prescription useful in this case. She could do all of those things. I and many others could do all of those things on her behalf, and it might not make a difference because cancer is such an unpredictable disease.
So I sit in synagogue, and I contemplate life, death, and the meaning of prayer. Using the High Holiday prayers as a magical incantation will not cure her. I know this in my bones, and yet I am called to pray. The very act of reciting the words brings me comfort. I feel so helpless in the face of this situation. Yet, here is something I can do.
I can pray.
May you, my dear friend, be written in the Book of Life.
In the past week the rabbis witting on this blog have commented on several current controversial issues, Christian anti-Semitism, US immigration law, and the Hamas-Israeli conflict. The views expressed are varied, and if you are a regular reader of this blog, you will often see rabbis taking different opinions on the same issue. This is the kind of pluralism and open dialogue Rabbis Without Borders fosters. We believe that the Jewish community is stronger when we all have the opportunity to share our views and take the time to truly listen to the people who do not agree with us.
Rabbis Without Borders is a growing network of over 150 rabbis from across the denominational spectrum. We represent a variety of ages, geographic realities, and lived experiences. Our goal is to creatively share how Judaism can be useful to anyone looking to flourish in their lives. We do this by meeting people wherever and however they are. We shy away from pat answers and knee jerk reactions to questions. Instead, we welcome diverse conversations and ideas.
Since we value a multiplicity of viewpoints, beginning Monday August 4th you will start to see many new rabbis blogging sharing thoughts from the Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionsit, Renewal and Post-denominational streams of thought. As always, the rabbis will write about current issues in the world, share their perspectives, and comment on each other’s posts. The new voices will add of the depth of our conversations. We hope they will stimulate new ideas for you, and we encourage you to comment and ask questions. If there is an issue you would like to see addressed from a variety of viewpoints, please let us know. Add your voice to the mix. We want to learn from you as well!
Tomorrow, Tuesday, July 15th is a fast day in Jewish tradition. It is called the 17th of Tammuz, named after the date on the Hebrew calendar. It is a minor fast, meaning that the fast lasts only from sun up to sun down. It commemorates, among other things, the breaching of Jerusalem’s walls which led to the destruction of the Second Temple.
Coincidently, we are also in the month of Ramadam, when Muslims also fast from sun up to sundown. Given the confluence of the two fasts, and the current fighting between Israel and the Palestinians, several ideas have been floated to bring Jews and Muslims together to celebrate the two fast days.
One group organizing joint gatherings is called “Choose Life Ramadan- 17 Tammuz Fast.” The group can be found on Facebook. Rabbis and Imams from around the world are posting joint events on the page. Scroll through the page to see if there is something in your area. The idea is that if we can celebrate together, we can find a way to peace together.
Another idea is proposed by Rabbi Yehuda Kurtzer in an op ed published in The Times of Israel calling for “the sound of social silence.” He has been appalled at the hate being expressed on social media by people on both sides of this conflict. He is calling for social media silence on this issue beginning on the Fast of Tammuz on Tuesday and extending through the three weeks of mourning some Jews observe for the destruction of the Temples which ends on Tisha B’Av on Tuesday, August 5th.
Both of these ideas are beautiful ways to try to stem the hatred and violence on both sides of this conflict. They also give each of us a way to contribute to building peace. I hope you are able to put one of these ideas in to practice, or to think of another positive thing you can do to help bring about peace.
Israel’s national anthem is called Hatikvah, “The Hope.” Though things may seem very bleak right now, I am holding on to the hope that peace will finally come to the region, and I want to play even a tiny role in making that happen. You can too!
1. Do you have strong ideas and opinions?a. Yes
2. Do you share these ideas with others?
3. Do you expect other people to live up to your high expectations of them?
4. Do you command attention when you enter a room?
If you are male and answered “a” to all of the questions above, then you have executive potential. If you are female and answered “a” to the above questions, then you are bossy and pushy. If you manage to reach the top of your field in spite of these character flaws, then expect to be reviled.
Because she was “the first woman” she is de facto a leader. Her curiosity and thorough investigation of the world she lived in served her well to be a leader of early humankind. But it was these very same traits that caused her downfall. She was too curious; she bit the fruit from the tree of knowledge, and convinced her husband, Adam to do the same. Since then people have been suspect of women’s leadership. Eve led humanity in to a world filled with suffering, pain and disease.Women in leadership positions have always had to walk a fine line. They need to be smart enough, and confident enough to assume a leadership position, but not appear to pushy, bossy, or aggressive. Gender bias is alive and well in 2014, and we have Eve to thank for this. Yes, Eve, the first woman mentioned in the Bible.
How do we undo the damage taught by this story for thousands of generations?
It deeply pains me to love Judaism so much, to love the stories in the Bible, and the artful way rabbis debate laws in the Talmud when this amazing tradition is inherently misogynistic. We have come a long way in both the larger Western culture and the liberal Jewish world to recognize that women can be leaders in a variety of secular and religious positions. Yet, female leaders are still seen as somewhat suspect.
I think this will always be the case until we stop teaching the story of Eve the way we do. Instead of casting Eve as the one who leads humanity in to suffering, why not teach the beauty of curiosity – how sometimes it leads to good things and sometimes to bad? Why not stress that God wanted Eve to eat of the apple. For God put the tree there in the first place and imbued humans with curiosity. By eating the fruit, Eve was living up to her highest potential; in the end she opened the door to all of human ingenuity and progress. Isn’t that a good leader’s job, to help propel things forward?
I love the characters of the Bible because they are all flawed human beings, just like us. However, when a story portrays a gender stereotype that has been passed down for generations and has been woven in to the very fabric of culture after culture, it is time to tell a different story.
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Infertility is so difficult to talk about since it is such a personal struggle and everybody experiences it in a different way. As a society, we even struggle to define it. Is it an illness or not?
A friend recently shared her struggles with infertility with me. She felt she was in the middle of a storm without an anchor. Having struggled myself to have a child, and ultimately adopting, I resonated deeply with her pain. Infertility is a strange state to be in. You are not “sick,” exactly, yet the medical establishment often treats infertility like a disease, prescribing medicines and procedures with the hope of a “cure,” a healthy full term pregnancy and live birth.
During the time of my “treatment,” I was at the doctor’s office every other day getting blood drawn, checking hormone levels, and receiving shots. The feeling of fighting a disease, striving for a cure was palpable. Each time a procedure failed the doctor has a new one to try. Of course, the infertility industry is big business for the medical establishment. They want you to believe that they can cure what ails you and a pregnancy is just down the road.
But are you really sick? Is infertility a curable disease? Even the insurance industry which supports the medical establishment is not sure. Are infertility treatments necessary medical interventions and thus should be covered by insurance, or are they not? Some are covered, and some are not.
This leaves the women and men suffering in a strange kind of limbo. On the outside, everyone appears “normal” and “healthy.” Yet, internally we are suffering great pain psychologically, spiritually, and even physically. Many of the treatments hurt. I had to wear long sleeves to cover the needle marks and bruises on my arms.
My body was working, yet it wasn’t. As both a spiritual and religious person, I wanted to find some prayers in the Jewish tradition that would confront me during this time. Flipping through the prayer book I landed on the Asher Yatzar prayer,
“Praised are You, Lord our God, King of the universe who with wisdom fashion the human body, creating openings, arteries, glands and organs marvelous in structure, intricate in design. Should but one of them, by being blocked or opened, fail to function, it would be impossible to exist. Praised are You Lord, healer or all flesh who sustains our bodies in wondrous ways.” (Translation from Siddur Sim Shalom).
At first, it seemed to be what I was looking for, a prayer for health. A prayer to help things flow the way they needed to. But then it hit me, the prayer reminded me yet again that I was in a funny grey area. My body was functioning normally most things were opening and closing as they should, yet not functioning at the same time. I was alive, but could not produce life. I needed to look elsewhere for comfort. The traditional Jewish’s sources did not work for me, I had to pray the words composed in my own heart and through my own tears.
This area that infertile couples deal with between sickness and health is unnamed and undiscussed. I know several friends who hid most of their visits to their doctors since they were not public with their infertility. How can you explain so many doctors’ visits without someone thinking you are seriously ill?
Navigating the maze of doctors, insurance claims, and your own sense of failure for not being able to conceive can make anyone feel that they are diseased and in need of treatment to make them normal, healthy, and whole again.
For some people, going through this maze of treatment might be the right way for them. It was not right for me. I ultimately came to her conclusion that I was not sick. Thankfully my body was functioning in every other way. I was indeed a healthy young adult.
This helped me recalibrate my thoughts. My goal here was not to “cure” myself by getting pregnant, but rather to be a mother. For my own sanity and sense of self, I left the medical world behind and chose to adopt.
Clearly for me, this was the right decision. I felt a million times better physically and spiritually as soon as I focused on this path. I stepped in to a world that had more clarity. Even though there was a lot of uncertainty surrounding adoption, I knew that at the end of the process I would have a baby. I would be a mother.
I left the world of limbo. As I filled out the papers to adopt, and there were a lot of papers, no one told me that there was anything wrong with me. I did not feel judged. I was healthy, whole, working towards a worthy goal.
Everyone experiences infertility differently. We all have our own expectations, disappointments, hopes and dreams. But I firmly believe that we are not diseased. May all who are struggling find their personal path to health, wholeness, and happiness.
Recently my email inbox has been filled with updates from three friends who are sick and using Caringbridge.com to update everyone on their status. For those who have never used the site, it is an amazingly helpful way to keep friends and family informed about your own or a loved one’s illness, organize visitors, meals, and help of all kinds. It is one of the wonders of the internet, that though I am geographically far from two of these friends, I can get daily updates about their progress, and leave them short notes and prayers in return.
It is not always easy to know how to interact with a friend or family member who is seriously sick. When so you ask questions about their illness? When do you bring a meal? When do you leave them alone? the New York Times op Ed columnist David Brooks addressed someone these questions last week in his column The Art of Presence. His basic message is: Just be present for those who need you.
This advice is ancient. The Talmud teaches that when you visit someone who is ill you take away 1/60th of their illness, just by visiting and being present. It is not about curing them, but about helping them heal in some small way.
Being present is not as easy as it sounds. If it were, we would not need to be reminded to do it by sources ancient and modern. Seeing a loved one suffer is painful. It is natural to want to run as far away as possible. Self-doubt easily creeps in, I wonder if I am saying the right thing, am I here are the right time, should I have brought food, something to read, should I tell a joke or be serious?
The answers to these questions, of course, depend on the person you are seeing the situation they are in. One friend has made it clear she wants prayers from friends and family. While another wants to keep things lighthearted and humorous. I have to take my cues from them about what to write and what to say. I also have to learn to put aside my anxieties. Better for me to say the wrong thing at a particular moment and apologize when I realize my mistake, then not to have been there at all.
So if you are struggling like I am with what to do or say, here are some tips on how to be present:
• Take time to really listen to the other person.
• Drop your expectations of what you are going to do or say.
• Be here now. Allow yourself not to be distracted.
• Be natural.
• Be patient.
• Try to listen with an open heart. Do not judge the other person.
• Try to sit in that other person’s place. Where is he? What is she feeling?
• Use your empathy and your compassion.
Now, just do it! Make some soup, send a card, pick up the phone. You can alleviate a bit of someone’s suffering just be letting them know you care. Be present for them.
It was one of those nights. I could not sleep at all. Sadness and worries crowded in. I went to bed after reading that Sam Sommer, an 8-year-old boy, had died of cancer. I first found out about his diagnosis in 2012 from his mother, Phyllis’s, Facebook status. We are Facebook friends. As a fellow rabbi and mother, Phyllis was someone I followed regularly. She had also just been admitted to a Fellowship program I run for rabbis called Rabbis Without Borders. Due to Sam’s diagnosis, she decided to defer her acceptance to the program. We have never met in person.
Yet, because she and her husband chronicled Sam’s cancer journey on their blog Superman Sam, I feel very close to them. Each time I read the blog tears would come to my eyes, tears of joy when Sam was doing well and tears of sadness when he was not. Phyllis and Michael’s posts on the blog were so open, honest, and full of love for their child it was impossible not to be drawn into their story.
Some people decry the public way many of us live our lives today, sharing intimate stories on our blogs and though our Facebook updates. Just a few months ago, I had a conversation with a rabbinic colleague who was uncomfortable with NPR host Scott Simon tweeting his mother’s death. He felt that somehow this public sharing of death took away its sacred nature. I could not disagree more.
Our modern American society has tried to whitewashed death. We want to push death away, pretend it is not difficult and painful, pretend that it does not have to happen, that our medical community will find cure after cure. We are afraid to speak to our children about death, or have them visit grandma or grandpa in the hospital lest it upset them. Yet death is a part of life. We cannot ignore it.
Over the past year and a half I read Phyllis and Michael’s blog with reverence. I know they did not share every detail of Sam’s journey with us. Some things are meant to be kept private. But in sharing what they did share, we, the reading public, were taken on a journey of childhood cancer. Going on this journey with the Sommers made me a better person. That may sounds grandiose, but it is true.
Most days I am absorbed in the drama of my own life, the daily arguing with my daughter to do her homework, balancing career and family, answering millions of emails, and generally living life. Checking in with Sam a few times a week reminded me to feel grateful for what I did have. Reading the blog reminded me to pray each day, a deep prayer of thanks for my life and the people in it, and caused me to send prayers of healing for Sam and others I knew who were suffering. I was more gentle and compassionate to my own family because I had this regular reminder that life could change on a dime.
Going public with your own or a loved one’s journey towards death is not for everyone. I completely respect that many people want and need to keep their journeys private. But for those for whom it is cathartic to write, blog, Facebook, and Tweet, I am thankful that we now have these tools available to us. Reading others’ stories and how they find incredible reserves of courage, strength, and love in the face of death makes us all stronger. We can learn that moments of great happiness can occur while the body is dying, that when we face things honestly and openly we can lessen the fear of the unknown.
I don’t think we can ever fully take away the fear and pain of death. It is a part of life. However, if we discussed it more openly and shared our stories, I would like to think that we could learn both how to die more peacefully and mourn more freely. What is more sacred than getting in touch with our emotions, and helping others navigate theirs? In my mind this is God’s work, helping us be more human in all of its messy glory.
Thousands of people are now mourning with the Sommers. I can only hope that the outpouring of love that has occurred on social media since word of Sam’s death arrived is buoying the Sommers though these incredibly painful days.
May God be with them on this new journey without Sam.
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Imagine the uproar that would happen if a rabbi said that he or she composed a new Torah. The rabbi would face criticism across the board.
Recently one of our Rabbis Without Borders, Rabbi Zach Fredman shared a new “Torah” called The Maqam Project with some rabbis on a listserv. The negative reactions came swiftly. Not knowing that a “maqam” is a is an Arabic musical scale, similar to a jazz mode, which repeats a musical theme while allowing for and encouraging improvisation and has been used for centuries by Syrian Jews as a means of interpreting Torah, the rabbis on the listsev reviled Rabbi Fredman’s supposed “Torah.” Some ungraciously asked who was this guy? Was he even a rabbi?
Imagine their surprise when it turned out that Rabbi Fredman is reviving an ancient Judeo- Arabic tradition of Torah study. What he is doing may be new to us, but is actually quite old. Each weekly Torah potion has a melody that goes with its story line. Rabbi Fredman studied these melodies and then teamed up with another rabbi, James Stone Goodman, to create an interplay of poetry and music which explains the main themes in the weekly Torah portion.
Both the music, which has a distinctive Arabic sound and the spoken word, might sound strange to our Western ears. This is not how my Eastern European ancestors learned Torah. It is different, but it is also traditional Torah. What is old becomes new again.
The Maqam Project is border pushing in the Jewish world. It causes people like me, an American born and raised Ashkenazi Jew, to expand my understanding of what Torah is and how I can access it. I find it both unsettling and beautiful at the same time. I am thankful to have been given a new way to approach Torah.
Take a listen. I would be curious to hear your reactions.