Hoshana Rabbah is kind of a weird day – even for the Jewish calendar. It’s not really a holiday – it’s the last day of Sukkot- but it has some peculiar rituals associated with it that we don’t do for the rest of Sukkot. We have an all-night tikkun (study-session), like Shavuot. It’s named for the fact that we say more hoshanot than on all the other days of Sukkot. Its main, distinctive feature is the beating of the aravot – the willows that are stuck into the arba minim — that leafy thing-lemon wanna-be combo- that we hold and shake throughout the week -but we don’t say a brachah (blessing) on doing so.
There have been lots of proposed explanations of why we beat the aravot – some of which are quite lovely, and I hope that people will look them up and get a great deal of meaning from them. One of the most likely explanations, though, is rather prosaic: My teacher, Rabbi Brad Artson, writes elsewhere on MJL, that the mishnah explains that the destruction of the aravot is actually because, since the festival is ending, we render the aravot unfit to use, as a signal of the end of the holiday. He notes that the beating takes place after the willows are no longer needed, and in fact are destroyed immediately following their last use; that we do so without any blessing; and that the mishnah, following the discussion of the ritual destruction of the willows, then tells about children loosening the lulavs and eating the etrogs – in other words, rending them unfit as well. He then notes, “The Shulhan Arukh [a code of Jewish law] supports this supposition when it notes that we are not to beat off all the leaves on the branch, only a few. Hence the havatah only includes beating the aravah once or twice. The purpose pf the ritual is not complete destruction, only preventing its further use. In this regard, the Shulhan Arukh’s understanding of havatat aravot parallels the removal of one tzitzit [fringes] from a tallit [prayer shawl] that then becomes pasul [ritually unfit].”
What I found interesting here is the analogy to the clipping of the corner of the tallit, which is also done when someone dies, in order that they can be buried in a tallit, because one doesn’t bury the tzitzit (fringes) if they are still ritually fit to use. What many people don’t know is that hoshana rabbah is the actual ending of the cycle of repentance, of the Yamim Noraim.
The mystical text, the Zohar, says that while the judgment for the new year is sealed on Yom Kippur, it is not delivered until the end of Sukkot (i.e., Hoshana Rabbah, which we noted above, is the end of Sukkot). So until Hoshana Rabbah, it is still possible to change your behavior, seek forgiveness through teshuvah, and have the decree set for each of us changed (That’s why the special greeting for Hoshana Rabbah is different than the rest of the holidays: pitka tova “A good note,” which is a wish that your final decree for the year will be a good one).
Since Sukkot is when the world is judged for water and the blessings of agriculture, together with this notion of a final moment of verdict makes Hoshana Rabbah a bit like Yom Kippur, a day on which we wear white, cease to eat and drink and engage in physical, human activities, mimicking death. So, perhaps, when we beat the aravah – but only to the extent of rendering them unfit for ritual use (after all, we have ritual items for many holidays that we don’t destroy at the end of the holiday), perhaps this, in a small way, mimics our burial, and offers to God the final means by which we are able to be forgiven for our sins: through our deaths. And of course, willow leaves look like teardrops.
And now, when we celebrate Shemini Atzeret – our joyful, intimate, gathering with God, and we return the Torah back to its beginning, before anything has happened or gone awry, we too, are able to be completely new, in love and wholeness with God.
“How do I go on?” I was asked recently at a service following the death of a beautiful woman in our community. The neighbor asking had lost a good friend, someone with whom she shared culture and tradition, language and passions. My neighbor was bereft but she was also scared. This was not the death of an old person who had lived out a full life. This death at early age was a reminder to us all that we are not in control of our own mortality. Knowing this, understanding the power and potential of loss, how indeed are we to go on?
Most of us manage day to day by simply avoiding thinking about just how fragile life is. To live moment to moment with that level of uncertainty can indeed be incapacitating.
In trying to answer my neighbor’s question, I drew on the one of the central teachings of the holiday of Sukkot, which we are now celebrating. On a purely programmatic level the holiday is a drag, coming on the heals of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur it can feel like too much. But the message of the holiday is profound.
On Rosh Hashana, we embrace the reality of life, in all its messiness, filled with missteps and unfulfilled dreams. On Yom Kippur, we simulate our own death, not eating, abstaining from sex, and wearing white to simulate shrouds. We confront our own mortality. If take it seriously, we too are left asking “How do I go on?”
Only days afterwards, our tradition has us sitting out in temporary booths looking up at the stars in the sky. In prayers, Sukkot is referred to as z’man simchateynu –the time of our joy. Having faced death, we feel life’s fragility. Our tradition knows this and prescribes a way forward. The structure of a Sukkah is a metaphor for life. It is temporary and while affording us some level of comfort it cannot protect us from all harm. Sitting in the Sukkah we are able see the grandeur of the universe in the rising and setting of the sun, the moon and the stars. And we are meant to be happy. It is precisely the recognition of just how fragile, just how temporary, just how grand life is that allows us to embrace the joy of the everyday.
I could not take away the deep loss or the fear from my neighbor. They are the painful reality of living. Try as we may, we cannot avoid the realities of mortality. Instead, I offered her the wisdom of Sukkot. Go home, kiss your boys, tell your husband you love him. Notice the splendour that is your life. Cherish the moments that are, because while they are temporary, they are also extraordinary. Truly value the time that we do have. Live life with joy.
Memories can play such tricks on our minds. Last night, I returned to a synagogue where my husband had served as an assistant rabbi for 5 years. We were there to celebrate the installation of the new senior rabbi who is a good friend. People from different parts of our lives swirled together, past congregants from the synagogue, current friends, and colleagues who we looked forward to meeting. All of this taking place in this synagogue building which holds such an important place in my life. I was married on the bimah, celebrated my wedding reception in the ballroom, watched my husband bloom from a rabbinic intern in to a full fledge rabbi, and taught my own first adult education courses. The five years I walked in and out of that synagogue mark the years I grew up and became an adult.
All of this came flooding back as I sat in the pews and walked the halls. But one emotion hit me in the gut, regret. Walking down the hall a picture of the cantor my husband worked with, Cantor Renee Colson stared down at me from the wall. The minute I saw her tears came to my eyes. The last time we were in the synagogue was seven years ago for her funeral. She was diagnosed with cancer and died within two years of our leaving the synagogue.
Her eyes seemed to follow me as I walked down the hallway. And I remembered… I remembered having to cancel a dinner date I had made with her because a work commitment got in the way. She was already very sick at the time, though I did not realize how sick. I was surprised, when I called to tell her I couldn’t make it, when she said, “Well it doesn’t matter, since I can’t eat anyway.” She wouldn’t, or couldn’t reschedule. Her words stuck with me like an arrow in the gut. I meant to reach out again, but then I heard she had died. To this day, I regret that I cancelled our dinner date.
I know that having dinner with her would not have changed the course of her cancer. But I feel like I let down a friend in need. Today I do not remember the work commitment I had that night, but I remember where I should have been.
It is easy to spout aphorisms about living each day to the fullest and spending less time at work and more with family and friends. But it is hard for us to follow them. I wish my priorities had been in the right place that night.
I will always remember Renee being full of life and voice. Every Rosh Hashannah certain songs bring her to mind. Her high notes still ring in my ears and her memory lives on in me.
Sitting in the sanctuary last night, as I celebrated my friend’s new beginning as the rabbi there, I remembered. For a moment, the past, present, and future all combined. I sat in the moment with both joy and pain in my heart.
I hope I will not make a similar mistake in the future. May Renee’s memory teach me to celebrate with friends in the good times and be with them in the bad, for life inescapably brings both.
The eldest son was chosen by his father to recite the Kaddish in his memory.
Standing at the gravesite where his mother and father lay side by side, the son gathers his large black and white bar mitzvah tallit and drapes himself like a flag on the fourth of July. Enveloped in white, he illuminates the cemetery’s grey exterior. He speaks to the mourners and friends who have come to grieve with him.
“Two years ago my father told me that I would be expected to say Kaddish for him when he died. The Kaddish was a familiar prayer to me, but could I chant it by myself, by heart? So soon after I came home from my visit with my dad, I went on the Internet to get acquainted with this venerable prayer. I wanted to be ready when the time came. Today, two years later, I am prepared to say the Kaddish for my father.”
He then proceeded to enunciate every vowel and syllable in this transcendent prayer. His voice, confident and grounded, remained steady throughout the upside down mantra-like sounds. No hesitations. No pauses. No mistakes. A solid-gold performance sincere and sacred.
A Kaddish recited by heart from the heart.
Kaddish is the ancient memorial prayer written in Aramaic and recited by those who are mourning a loved one. In traditional Judaism, it was the eldest son who was obligated to say this prayer three times a day for eleven months to honor his parent and to raise the soul of the lost one to a higher realm. Today, in most denominations, women and men, the eldest and the youngest, chant this prayer in a communal setting. It serves as a therapeutic ritual for the grief work necessary to heal from our losses.
The important thing is not how many separate injunctions are obeyed but how and in what spirit we obey them. -Baal Shem Tov
The purpose of the shiva minyan is to comfort the mourner.
Last week I was called upon to facilitate a shiva minyan for a woman whose brother had died in another city. Now that the mourner was back home, she wanted to complete her seven days of mourning with her own local community.
People poured in during the day, but as the seven o’clock evening hour approached, only a few people remained. So we waited for a minyan, the obligatory quorum of ten to be able to pray. When seven-thirty arrived, so did the tenth person.
I assessed the situation. Two Jews, two Hindus, two Baptists, two Evangelical Christians, one Catholic — and me, the rabbi.
Shiva is the most therapeutic of Jewish mourning rituals. It honors the journey of the bereaved by providing friends, family, and co-workers a proscribed setting in which to express their sympathies and condolences.
“‘Shiva’ means seven, the holy number of the days of creation and the number of days Jews withdraw from daily life to mourn a beloved,” I explained.
“Has anyone been to Jerusalem?” I asked, not knowing what the response would be.
“Oh, yes!” came the feedback. “Several times,” echoed the African American couple sitting directly across from me.
“As you might remember, there are seven open gates in the Old City. In ancient times, there were eleven gates, and the Temple in the ancient city of Jerusalem had a separate path set aside for the mourners. As the mourners came through this selected gate, they came face-to-face with other members of the community, and the people expressed the recognition of their loss by reciting this Hebrew verse.”
HaMakom y’nachem etkhem b’tokh sh’ar aveilei Tzion v’ Yrushalayim.
I had them repeat the words after me and focus on their friend who stood with a torn black ribbon on her jacket above her heart indicating externally her internal private grief.
We formed a circle around the mourner and recited the verse in unison.
May God comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.
Suddenly and in harmony, we were all on the same page of the heart. We have all traveled on the same path of loss and bereavement. Language was not the barrier. Faith traditions didn’t separate us from the realities of life and death. How easy it is to create a sacred comforting space among our diversities.
Two weeks ago I wrote about the tragic loss of little Ayelet Galena z”l. I discussed how one young life was able to literally save the lives of twenty one other people. We can not and must not lose hope in our own potential in the face of all the goodness that was brought about due to the inspiration of one two year old girl and her valiant struggle.
This week I am reminded of the loss of yet another young life. Last year our community at Harvard suffered the tragic and sudden death of a beloved member of our student community, Ilya Chalik z”l. Ilya would have graduated along with the rest of the members of the class of 2011. His dream was to enter the medical profession, which fit his driving character trait of serving others perfectly.
Members of the community who knew Ilya gathered on campus this week to reflect on the one year anniversary since his death. As I listened to people share their stories and how they are coping one year later, I was struck by the same thought as I was a year ago: One life, one relatively young life, was able to bring together such disparate sectors of the broader community into conversation with each other. I thought of this a year ago when I flew with his Harvard tai-chi instructor to his funeral. I thought of this when I heard his friends from his diverse high school in Chicago reflect on how he impacted them. I thought of this when friends from college discussed their interactions with him from house life; from Hillel; from trips to Colombia and to Israel and from his work with various Asian societies on campus.
Ilya, through his friendships, his life and his deeds, wove threads linking people and magnified life for all who knew him. Students, reflecting on how Ilya impacted their life, commented that because of him they now have come to appreciate how beautiful a tree in fall is or how serene an afternoon in Harvard Yard could be. They have come to see life can mean more than performing well, it can be just as much about living well.
The lessons imparted to us by Ilya are shared by the single most defining ritual of the Jewish year of mourning, the Kaddish. The prayer traditionally recited daily by mourners has very little to do with mourning and with death. Rather, its central themes rest on the world that ought to be, glorifying God and optimism for the world and its inhabitants:
May the great name of God be exalted and sanctified throughout the world… May His kingship be established in your lifetime and in the lifetime of all of Israel… May there be abundant peace from Heaven and a good life upon us and all of Israel…
Kaddish is a daily reminder that the deceased lives on, in a sense, through the ways in which his or her striving for a more holy, more peaceful and more abundant life become a part of our ways and our lives. Death is an end, sometimes abruptly so, to the potential of one life, yet our ability to magnify that life and be magnified by it, can be tremendously realized through finding times to reflect and come together to remember.
And so as I left the space this week where fellow students, friends, teachers and mentors of Ilya gathered to reflect on one year since his loss, I felt a deep pain and sadness. I remember his warm presence at our Shabbat table. I remember his excitement about seeing the world and I remember the intense pain and mourning of his parents, his friends and the entire Harvard community. However, I also left that space feeling inspired and uplifted by hearing the ways in which Ilya’s life left a mark and forever changed the lives of so many others; how his ability to bring unique parts of society together in harmony has become stamped on the hearts and minds of so many others who knew him.
May the memory of Ilya Chalik z”l and all that he strove for, all that he believed in continue to inspire all who knew him and who have come to know him through hearing the stories of his life, to magnify the connections between people and the beauty of life. May we continue to work towards a day of abundant peace for us and for all people as Ilya worked so hard for in his short life.
This week has been a heavy one for the Jewish people and an indescribably difficult one for the parents of young Ayelet Galena zt”l who left this world Monday morning. Ayelet was two years old and was diagnosed with a rare bone marrow disorder called dyskeratosis congenita.
Ayelet’s struggle for life became everyone’s struggle. Her parents utilizing social media, particularly Facebook, updated her close to 6,000 “fans” on a regular basis. The images of little Ayelet simultaneously exhibiting so much will to life and yet so much suffering and pain, united thousands of people to do something. Many people prayed for her daily; others baked challah in her merit, while others re-posted the updates from her parents to their social circles often, thereby expanding the circle of support and care by leaps and bounds.
The loss of Ayelet is not just the loss of one beautiful little girl. It is not just the loss of the potential for her life and all that she might have accomplished. It is both of those things but also so much more. The Mishnah in Tractate Sanhedrin teaches us that the loss of a single life is as if an entire world was lost forever. There are generations of descendants from Ayelet the world will never know. There are countless people who would have been touched by her life who will not have that experience. In chaos theory there exists a concept called the butterfly effect in which one small change can bring about tremendous results that would be impossible to anticipate. The loss of Ayelet is not just a small change to the world, it is an enormous change, and the impact that she would have brought to her family, her people and the rest of humanity, will never be known.
Yet, the Mishnah also teaches us the converse as well. One who saves a life is as if she or he saved the entire world. And there is no doubt that the heart wrenching struggle for life waged by Ayelet and her family, broadcast to the world has brought about so much good. One often wonders how much they can truly impact the world. What difference can I really have in a global community of over seven billion people? The story of Ayelet is the loudest protest possible against the proposition that our lives do not and cannot matter. Each one of us can make such a tremendous difference.
Of all the actions that occurred to express support with Ayelet and her family, perhaps the most impactful of them all was the organization of countless cheek swabbing drives to add people to the bone marrow registry of Gift of Life and the also important fundraising drives for Gift of Life. Because of those cheek swabbing drives, when Ayelet tragically left this world on Monday morning, 21 people had found their lives saved through the bone marrow registry and the registration of all those new people. Twenty one people in this world owe their lives to the good will of complete strangers who were inspired at the very deepest levels to act because of Ayelet Galena zt”l. In other words, because of Ayelet there now exists another twenty one worlds of human life and meaning.
This is the impact of one person. One two year old child was able to galvanize people to give of themselves and restore life to another twenty one people. If we learn anything from the tragedy of the loss of Ayelet let it be two ideas: 1) Donate to Gift of Life and register with Gift of Life. Each registration to the list costs money; the more people who are registered the greater chance that another human being can live another day and if you have not done so already, take that simple cheek swab and become part of the registry. 2) Anytime you feel your life does not matter, anytime you are confident that the world would be no worse or better with or without you, remember Ayelet. The struggle of one small child restored life to twenty one people. Ponder and reflect on that because you never know how and in what way you will make that difference.
On January 9, 2011, a sweet singer of Israel, Debbie Friedman, passed away. While her Hebrew yahrzeit is at the end of this month, for many this is becoming a month of remembrance. Family gatherings, concerts in her memory, special Shabbat Shira dedications in early February, as her legacy and her songs live on.
On Monday night, I ended my eighth grade class with a brief sharing of some of my own personal interactions with Debbie, and the enormous role she had in pointing the way to the path that became my life as a rabbi. When I teach Torah about m’lachim – angels in Jewish tradition, I often point out how, when they show up in our holy text, they bring a message that redirects the life path of the one being visited. Think Hagar (twice), Jacob wrestling with an angel, Joseph meeting a ‘man’ in a field who redirects him to find his brothers (without which the rest of the Joseph story that we have recently read in this year’s Torah cycle might never have unfolded). When I teach these texts, I ask people to think of the encounters in their own lives that might fall into this domain. Debbie was most certainly ones of those people for me. One of the last songs she wrote was a new setting for Shalom Aleichem – the poem we sing on Erev Shabbat to welcome the Sabbath angels into our homes and our lives … how fitting.
Many have written far more eloquently than I about the legacy of Debbie’s music; how she transformed the way we sang our souls to God, and the sound of prayer in our sanctuaries; and how her blending of English and Hebrew enabled us to understand and connect with the prayers in a deeper way. For me, and for many who had personal encounters with Debbie, whether they were intimate friends, or once-only events, the legacy that we remember goes beyond the gift of the music. In the outpouring of remembrances that were shared online in the days and weeks that followed her passing, what so many shared was the way that Debbie was deeply and truly present to others. She had a gift for seeing within another person and, in that moment, asking the most important question. She was a Spiritual Director of sorts, although she would never have claimed that label.
During this month of January as I remember, sing Debbie’s songs, look through old photographs, and connect with others, I know that all who do likewise, in the USA and beyond, are truly making her memory be for a blessing. ‘And you shall be a blessing’, she sang to us. Now we sing it for her.
At the end of my eighth grade class, I played the original recording of Debbie as a teenager singing the Shema. I told them how young she had been when she began to write these melodies, how she song-lead at camp, how she went on to touch so many thousands of lives. I pray that, while they will never have the blessing of meeting Debbie Friedman, they may still be touched by her gifts and inspired by her life.