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.
Every Thursday afternoon at my yeshiva college in Queens my Gemara rebbe (teacher of Talmud) would offer a short thought on the weekly Torah portion. These were usually filled with personal anecdotes from his life or dilemmas he helped students address in previous decades. There was one particular Thursday afternoon message that has remained with me from all those years ago and remains particularly relevant for our society.
It was the Thursday afternoon before winter vacation (or bein hazmanim as we called it in yeshiva) and many of us were anxious about the upcoming time away. Life in yeshiva is very structured and very busy. Every moment in the walls of the beit hamidrash, the study hall is spent delving into the complexities and intricacies of God’s revealed Law. How could we depart from that and enter the serenity and quiet of vacation? So it was on that Thursday afternoon that the rebbe got up and took a breath, making eye contact with each one of us, and said “vacation is kadosh,” vacation is holy.
To invest time in our own well-being and our mental, physical and spiritual health is to also be engaged in a sacred task. The Torah itself in Deuteronomy 4:15 enjoins us to guard ourselves exceedingly. We are commanded to not neglect our own health even when engaged in the most important work.
Americans on average work around 50% more than their European counterparts. We put in longer daily hours, take less vacation and retire later than much of the rest of the Western world. It is also true that so much of what we do is vital for the economy, for our local communities, for our families and for ourselves and yet for it, and for us, to be sustainable we have to learn how to take some time to rejuvenate and recharge. When discussing the Shabbat the Torah charges us to work thereby investing our work with sanctity – “six days you shall work,” but the Torah also commands rests and invests that with sanctity as well.
As I write this I am heeding my rebbe’s advice and my family and I are on vacation. I look forward returning to my work renewed and reinvigorated and my tefillah, my prayer is that more of us heed the call of the Torah to invest in ourselves and come to see the holiness of vacation.
For the first time in years, my husband and I have chosen to take a staycation. Our parents and siblings live on the East Coast, so we generally spend our vacation time shuttling back and forth between cities in the Northeast, lugging over-packed suitcases on an off planes and in and out of rental cars, toting around tired children, strollers, and car-seats. You get the picture. Although I love the opportunity to see family and friends and feel deeply grateful that I have loved ones to visit, this winter we decided we just couldn’t take another big trip. We needed to stay back and regroup in our own space, in our own home here in Austin, TX.
There’s no school, so the kids can stay up late and sleep in. (And, thankfully, I have two young children who love to sleep in, so that means mom gets to sleep in too.) Although my husband and I are trying to get some things done around the house, nobody is “on the clock,” so to speak. We are enjoying being together and sharing time and space with one another — playing and singing together as a family, socializing with friends, and lingering in each other’s presence. We are not focused on homework, after school activities, work obligations, and what “has to get done,” but instead embracing our essential selves. This week is about appreciating “who we are” and not “what we are doing.” This evening I realized that this staycation feels a lot like Shabbat.
Shabbat happens every week. It isn’t a vacation, because the goal isn’t to escape to another destination. Quite the opposite. It’s a staycation — an opportunity to be present, right here, right now. On Shabbat we have the opportunity to set aside our alarm clocks and our tight schedules, connecting instead with the people in our lives whom we cherish most. It is, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “an island in time” — an opening to reacquaint ourselves with who we truly are, to nourish our minds and our souls.
In just a few hours, the sun will set and Shabbat will be upon us. The term “staycation” is rather new, but the staycation of the Jewish people — aka Shabbat — is over 3,000 years old. There is a reason we’ve kept this tradition around. It works. Our souls need this seventh day of rejuvenation. As January approaches and my family returns to our regular, beloved activities, I am grateful to know that another staycation is always less than a week away.
It’s been an interesting couple of months here in New Jersey. First, in August, an earthquake rocked us, and while it was fortunately a minor event in seismological terms, it scared lots of folks. I was in my office meeting with two women – as soon as we realized the quake was over we each, without a word, grabbed our phones to call our husbands. The seismic event became a people-to-people event, as we connected with each other, our loved ones, our friends, and the world. A friend from Israel was quick to write, having seen the posts on Facebook. She wanted to be sure I was ok. At the end of the day, what we remember most from that day not the earthquake itself, which was inconsequential, but the way we reached out to each other in an uncontrollable festival of caring and friendship.
Then Hurricane Irene hit later in August, and despite the meteorological observation that it was downgraded to a tropical storm by the time it hit New Jersey, we still refer it as “the hurricane,” since its impact in our area was significant. Thousands of trees and limbs fell, doing their damage along the way. Floods filled basements, some homes, and many businesses. Many people went without power for several days, losing all their cold food, enduring the hot August week in stuffy homes. Nerves were frayed. But once again, what I remember most was the connections between people. We reached out to each other to see how we could help, offering hands-on cleanup, referrals to reliable contractors, and lots of emotional support. As our area ground to a near-halt in the aftermath, we remembered to be more patient and compassionate. We took lots of deep breaths and felt gratitude for the opportunity to recover and go on.
The old superstition that bad things happen in “three’s” seemed to be a predictor by the time we hit the last weekend in October. There we were on that Shabbat, celebrating a lovely bat mitzvah watching heavy, wet snow steadily fall throughout the day. It was beautiful. Like the earthquake, it took us by surprise, except this time, the awakening to the surprise was in slow motion. We had heard it could snow, but nobody took it seriously since it had been a temperate autumn until then. The leaves were still on the trees and it had just been 68 degrees a few days earlier; no way this could be a snow event worthy of worry.
We were wrong. I marveled at the calm of the bat mitzvah celebrants – if it had been December, the weather forecast would have created a flurry of activity, trying to decide whether or not to proceed. The party would surely have been postponed, or very sparsely and briefly attended. A foot of snow grinds all activity to a halt around here. But as this accumulation coated the trees, people smiled at the beauty, grateful that it was only October, and couldn’t really so bad as to stop the celebration. People were happy to be with one another.
As we left, we learned that we had miscalculated. It wasn’t so much that the snow itself made roads impassable this time—it was that the heavily laden trees couldn’t withstand the onslaught. Huge trees and limbs began gracefully falling by the dozens, then the hundreds, and then the thousands. The passageways home were blocked on many, if not most streets. We all struggled to get home. Some people had no way to get to their homes and had to find alternate shelter at hotels or with friends.
And then the power went out. Across our area tens of thousands of homes and businesses lost power for many days. Schools were closed, in some areas for a whole week, and even more in the worst areas. Live electrical wires were hanging across roads and driveways and many streets were blocked, making for crisis conditions. Many said that this freak storm dwarfed the impact of the recent hurricane (though folks who were flooded out in August might not have agreed).
What did we do? We reached out to one another, once again asking each other how we could help. Some helped neighbors and friends clear fallen trees, others offered shelter, many offered emotional support.
My house was amazingly spared of power outages both times. The necessary tree removal awaiting us is one thing; my friends living without power in the cold snap that followed the storm was another. We tried frantically to contact the members of our community, with limited success. Some spent the week at hotels or with out of town family, while working parents endured difficult commutes. Even the trains didn’t run for days – there were too many trees and wires down across the tracks. Many people remained in cold, dark houses, for a variety of reasons. But amidst the stress of this situation, there was a loving warmth that began to radiate as we found each other and shared space and support.
My husband and I hosted friends and then some congregants during that difficult week. It was a time for meaningful connection and tremendous appreciation for the value of caring relationships. Folks came to the synagogue to get warm or use the electricity, and the greatest resource we could share: caring. People complained to each other, shared their tales of woe, and then we reminded one another to be grateful for the precious gift of life. Yes, it was difficult, but it taught us about what is most important – not our things, but our connections.
We can be so fragmented these days – constantly on our computers and our phones, often rushing from one place to the next for activities that fill our days, and stress our souls. Ironically, all this social networking can separate us from our deepest selves, and from each other. These three unusual natural events reminded us that life is first and foremost about weaving connections between each other. When we came together on the Shabbat following the storm, we prayed with gusto, hugged one another, and thanked our Creator for the opportunity to care for one another, and to go forward enriched by the experience.
Twenty early morning souls relax into the padded cushions that line the basement of the Washington Center for Consciousness Studies. I place myself in the back right corner and lean back into the plump fabric-covered pillows.
My gaze catches the glow that emanates from the room’s interior cavity. A life-sized picture of the host couple’s Indian guru greets me. We engage. His eyes follow me like Michaelangelo’s Mona Lisa and encourage my contemplation.
The dharma is presented by a visiting Hindu teacher. He reflects on the life of his beloved guru, Bhagavan Nityananda, with stories, humor and pathos. He recalls and recites the miracles created by his spiritual mentor. His tales enhance our way of modeling a superior spiritual life.
“The spiritual,” he says, “is about connections and coincidences, the relationship to the One and the flow of the mysterious.”
The chanting occurs in Sanskrit. Several people sing along, while I relax into the rhythmic tones and nest my face into my white pashmina scarf. My breathing is nonexistent to myself. God takes my inhalation and sets my heartbeat into a peaceful pace.
In time, the chanting changes and completes its round. The dimmer radiates more light. The 90-minute meditation session ends with a smooth finish. No one speaks; everyone moves.
Ten hours later, I stand before the Shabbat candles in the corner hallway at the Chabad House in Herndon, Virginia. I hear and embrace the giggling sounds of my four grandchildren and the rabbi’s five children as they relay race down the corridors. I quiet my mind for reflection.
Amidst the joy, I linger in the entryway in front of the gold-framed picture of the Rebbe and a portrait of the late young Chabad rabbi, Levi Deitsch, who died of cancer the year before. The Rebbe, the late Chabad rabbi and the nameless guru follow me into the Friday evening prayers of Kabbalat Shabbat.
Rabbi Leibel Fajnland faces the Holy Ark. The echo of his continuous Hebrew davening wafts through the many rooms of this sparsely furnished one-story school and learning center.
I receive his concentric prayers and whisper the mantra of my silent evening Amidah by heart. I enter into dialogue with the God of my ancestors.
I soften my eyelids. I close my eyes. I see into the light of my early morning soul again.