Yesterday, during preparations for the graduation ceremony for the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, I caught a glimpse of the glow on the face a soon-to-be-ordained rabbi. It was magical. In my mind’s eye I could feel the tears streaming down my cheeks 27 years ago when I received the title “rabbi” after 5 intense years of learning at RRC. Mazal tov to this year’s new “rabbis and teachers in Israel”!
But yesterday’s rabbinic becoming/ordination also hit me with some worry. The role and significance of rabbis in progressive Judaism is shifting, and the changes are happening more rapidly than many of us can easily absorb.
In today’s unfolding reality, the fastest growing non-Orthodox American Jewish group is unaffiliated Jews. While denominational attachment is diminishing, the mainstream movements and their member congregations are struggling. Rabbis are wrestling with this reality, working to craft new approaches to their leadership to meet shifting needs.
Rabbis devote their lives to Torah and the Jewish people out of love. Just as Moses struggled with the formation of his leadership for a frightened, searching, sometimes confused and frustrated people in the wilderness, so too do rabbis walk through this wilderness.
A friend who has given considerable time, money and leadership to synagogues and his national movement—and a long-time supporter and booster for rabbis, was just telling me about a congregation he enjoys visiting that does not have a rabbi. It has a “spiritual leader.” They are not alone—non-traditional leaders, with various titles and training, are becoming more accepted.
Independent rabbis who help individuals, couples and families are increasingly in demand. Jews still want to do Jewish—but as the Pew report highlighted, many are looking for different types of relationships with spiritual leaders. Filling this void, many “officiants” advertising in the marketplace have not had the depth of learning and professional training that rabbis have attained. Everything’s changing.
We are about to celebrate the holy day of Shavuot, placing us back into the wilderness with our ancestors, when, as one united people, the people of Israel experienced revelation. Their response, “na’aseh v’nishma—we will do and we will listen,” shored up their relationship not only with God, but with Moses, their leader.
Moses found the inspiration and support to lead in the changing reality of the wilderness. So can we, if we take a reflective stance as Moses did on Mt. Sinai. This is about the future of American Judaism—a vitally important communal conversation. This Shavuot, let’s hold that inspiration close, climbing the mountain and returning with faces aglow with God’s holiness, alive with new possibilities.
I am an immigrant to the United States. I am the holder of a green card—the documentation that gives me the status of “permanent resident.” I arrived at this status by way of a J1 visa (to enable me to work at a Jewish summer camp for a season), an F1 visa (a 1 year visa when I came to Hebrew Union College as a visiting student), then another J1 visa (another summer at camp), then another F1 visa (because I had transferred my rabbinic studies from the UK to the USA), and then two R1 visas (temporary religious worker visa—one needs to hold this and have a minimum of two years unbroken employment before one can begin the green card application; most people need to apply for two rounds, otherwise their authorization to work will run out before their green card has been processed).
That’s seven rounds of paperwork, lawyers fees and application fees. The cost was around $15000. And I’m one of the lucky ones. As a rabbi, congregations who needed not just “a rabbi,” but a rabbi that was a good match for their community, could present the need for my presence in the U.S. much more precisely than is the case in many other lines of work.
You might think that, after such a complex and drawn-out process (9 years in total), I would not be pleased at the thought that others were living and working here entirely undocumented. You might think that I would not be supportive of their hopes that a path to citizenship be attainable without having to go through the process that I so diligently observed.
But you’d be wrong.
I’m one of the lucky ones. I have the means, the language skills, and the communal support, to do all that I did and wait my turn. I cannot fathom how someone crossing the border from Mexico, hoping to make a little money on a tomato or orange farm to send back to family, could possibly navigate or afford what I did. I cannot imagine a woman, arriving under the guise of a tourist, but then remaining to avoid the sexual assaults she suffered in her native land, and now working nights cleaning offices, could gather the means to do as I did.
Next week is the festival of Shavuot. There are many themes in the Book of Ruth, traditionally read at this time, but it is not difficult to find the story of an immigrant in this book, and all that is gained when the stranger is greeted with compassion and provided with the opportunity to make a life and contribute positively to a society, instead of hiding in the shadows.
As Rabbi Natan Levy recalls from that story, on the Times of Israel blog,
“…and Boaz watched the strange Moabite women in his field, and he says to his reapers: Leave her unmolested, and to his harvesters: Leave her a few extra sheaves of barley, and to his servants: Draw the well-water for her when she comes out of the heat of the Israeli summer. And when Ruth understands these things she turns to Boaz and asks a question: “How could I have found grace in your eyes that you should recognize me (l’hakireni)—Yet I am foreign (nokhriya).” (Ruth 2:10)”
Rabbi Levy, quoting Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, goes on to note that the word meaning “to recognize” (to grant rights and privileges) has the same Hebrew root as “to be a stranger/foreigner.” He says, “A single Hebrew word spans the spectrum of human interaction between recognition and estrangement, compassion and indifference.”
I am no expert on precisely what form new legislation to provide immigration reform should take. But on one thing I am clear. Jewish wisdom, paired with our own experiences of being the stranger, seeking a safe haven from oppression, demands compassion from us when we consider those who seek opportunity or safety among us. That is why I stand with the Religious Action Center of the Union for Reform Judaism, in supporting comprehensive immigration reform. Drawing from a liturgy created especially for this Shavuot to reflect on this issue, we are reminded of a midrash on the Book of Ruth:
And why was the Scroll of Ruth written?
Rabbi Ze’ira says: “To teach [us] of a magnificent reward to those who practice and dispense chesed/loving kindness” (Ruth Rabbah 2:15).
Hear now the voices of Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz:
I am Ruth.
With beloved family I came to a new country. I worked hard, determined to create a better life for myself and my loved ones. Today, I see my experience reflected in the lives of so many aspiring Americans strengthening this country through the work of their hands and the love of their families. On this Shavuot, please stand with me in recognition of the dreams of so many.
We are all Ruth.
I am Naomi.
I fled tragedy in one country to come to another filled with promise…only to be rejected—my dreams dashed against unthinkable challenges. Today, I see my experience reflected in the lives of so many aspiring Americans facing the fear of deportation, a promising future turned bitter. On this Shavuot, please stand with me as we turn dreams sweet once again.
We are all Naomi.
I am Boaz.
I recognized those toiling in dark shadows in the corners of the field. I used my power to bring light to lives burdened by daunting trials. Today, I would like to see my experience reflected in the lives of many more American working to change current policies that keep bright futures dim. On this Shavuot, please stand with me to welcome those toiling in the corners of this country.
We are all Boaz.
On this Shavuot, we stand with Boaz, Naomi, and Ruth. (liturgy extracted from the Rabbis Organizing Rabbis Initiative of The RAC).
Buzz Aldrin has just published a book Mission to Mars: My Vision for Space Exploration. About half a million people are expected to apply for a one-way trip to Mars through the Dutch company “Mars One.” And even though it was a robot doing the landing, over 3 million people watched Curiosity land on the red planet.
Over 50 years ago, the nation (and the world) were riveted by NASA’s attempts to land a person on the moon, and bring him back safely to the earth. And when NASA succeeded, the whole world felt a sense of pride and awe when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped out of the LEM and onto the Sea of Tranquility.
In its way, space travel is its own reward. Yes, the space program has provided us with concrete benefits: GPS navigation, meteorological forecasts, and even treatments for osteoporosis. But what it truly offers us is inspiration and a drive to expand our knowledge.
Neil de Grasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium, reminds us that the real value of space travel is how it captures our imagination, and how it motivates us to continue learning:
My favorite quote, I think it was Antoine Saint-Exupery who said, “If you want to teach someone to sail, you don’t train them how to build a boat. You compel them to long for the open seas.” That longing drives our urge to innovate, and space exploration has the power to do that, especially when it’s a moving frontier because all traditional sciences are there.
We humans are naturally curious creatures — we are born to explore. A mission to Mars excites us because we simply don’t know what we’ll discover, or how exactly it will add to our knowledge, or what new technologies will arise as a result. Even if we don’t immediately sense its benefits, it still has value, because the journey of learning is its own reward.
That’s the same message we get on Shavuot, our celebration of Torah, because the study of Torah, too, doesn’t always provide an immediate return on its investment. Instead, we study Torah lishmah, for its own sake.
Why? Because Torah is not designed to train us how to build a boat. It is designed to make us long for the open seas.
Jewish learning is never supposed to give us a final and definitive answer. Instead, it is supposed to inspire us, and to push us to explore beyond what we already know. Rabbis Michael Katz and Gershon Schwartz even titled a book Swimming in the Sea of Talmud because Jewish study leads us into the vast, challenging, and compelling unknown, which we do for the pure joy of learning something new. As they teach us, when we learn one text,
…there are a dozen new questions arising from [it]: Can this lesson be applied to other, similar situations? Is this lesson still applicable today? What would the Rabbis of the Talmud say to our particular situation, which differs slightly from the case they presented? Is the conclusion reached and the lesson derived from the text the most relevant and meaningful message? (Katz and Schwartz, 6-7)
True learning never stops; it pushes us out ever-farther into uncharted territory. As both space exploration and Torah study show us, each new discovery spurs new lines of inquiry; each new challenge forces us to create innovative solutions; each new venture helps us push the boundaries of knowledge.
Now, it is true that as vast as the open sea may be, it is not infinite. And neither, most likely, is space.
But human curiosity — our drive to explore and learn and grow — just might be.
Sometimes the most challenging part of being a committed Reform Jew is seeking ways to incorporate Judaism into our home life in ways that are meaningful. Complicating matters for our family is that our oldest child, Ben, is on the autism spectrum. And so incorporating anything into our regular routine can prove to be challenging for one who thrives on consistency.
Shavuot, which begins at sundown this evening, has always gotten the short end of the stick in our household. Although it is one of the three major festivals on the Jewish calendar, it has been the hardest to observe with our kids. Reform communities tend to have the main celebration during the evening service at the beginning of the holiday. But for families with young children, and those with family members who go to bed very early, evening observances are often out of the realm of reason. Not because the family is not committed to observing the holiday, but because it is simply not possible given the current circumstances. And that is certainly the case in our home.
So while I, as an adult, crave the spiritual and intellectual experiences that Shavuot has the potential to give me, my children need something different. And I, as the parent, am charged with creating a Shavuot observance that will inspire them and become part of our family’s story.
It takes a different shape each year as the needs and developmental stages of our kids shift. There is, however, one constant; ice cream.
The tradition to serve dairy foods on Shavuot is long-standing and has several explanations for its origin. Whatever the reason, it became clear to me that a great way to connect my kids to this tradition was to serve ice cream. One year it was an ice cream cake in the shape (sort-of) of a Torah. That happened once and only once. Over time, it has become our tradition to have a sundae bar for dinner. With crudités, cheese, and crackers as a forshpeis. Sparkling limeade and a fancy table set with flowers and crystal send the message that it is a night unlike other nights. By candlelight, God-willing, our conversation will include discussions of Torah, ancient and modern. Suggestions of how we might still hear God speaking to and through us will be shared. And in the morning, a breakfast of milk (still with the dairy theme) and Entenmann’s Rich Frosted Donuts. Because I ate them for the first time at my very first all-night Shavuot study session as a kid. Because they were a favourite of my grandmother, z”l, and it keeps her memory alive for my children. Because the study of Torah is never-ending.
Traditional? Not in the normative sense. But it is our family’s tradition. While they are young. And when they are ready for a more conventional observance, that is what we will do. Though I suspect ice cream will still be involved.
As of this writing, the following topics are trending on Twitter:
- Jason Collins
- Pacific Rim
- Nancy Pelosi
- Colbert Busch
(Yeah…I had to look up more than a couple too.)
What determines which topics trend on Twitter?
Trends are determined by an algorithm and are tailored for you based on who you follow and your location. This algorithm identifies topics that are immediately popular, rather than topics that have been popular for a while or on a daily basis, to help you discover the hottest emerging topics of discussion on Twitter that matter most to you. ~ Twitter Help Center
In other words, it seems to be an objective way to rank information from subjective sources.
In 2009, Reconstructionist rabbi and web developer, Shai Gluskin, decided to leverage Twitter and its algorithm by using it as a way to bring Torah to as many people as possible on the evening of Shavuot. As he expressed it then (on Twitter):
It has yet to happen. Each year we have tried. And, if the sole goal was to reach the top ten, then each year we have failed. But along the way to the trending goal, some wonderful things happened that cannot be measured by algorithms or scales or charts:
Real Torah was taught. In 140 characters or less. Each year that I have participated, I have discovered wonderful teachers of Torah and sometimes in the most unexpected places. Other perspectives have caused me to reconsider my understanding of certain verses. And engaging in discussions of Torah with people of all streams of Judaism all across the world feels as though I am part of the Living Torah. It is, truly, like being at the foot of the Mountain.
Now, for the fifth consecutive year, we are ready to learn and teach and share once again. As Rabbi Mark Hurvitz, one of the most vocal advocates of this cyber-initiative, reminds us: Some people wonder why we might do this. Did not Hillel say that among our primary tasks is (Avot 1:12) loving mankind (all of humanity), and bringing them (all) close to Torah. אוהב את הברייות ומקרבן לתורה?
This year (2013:5773), our event is scheduled to begin May 14. You can learn more and indicate your interest on our Facebook page and, if you would like to join us on our climb, sign up on our event page.
Teaching Torah isn’t limited to rabbis or scholars or Orthodox Jews or even Jews. There is Torah within each one of us. What if for one amazing day we could focus our conversation not on #SexyThingsGirlsDo or Pacific Rim but on bringing forth sacred truths and sharing them straight to the top of the Mountain?
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.
We often flow unaware from one moment on the calendar to the next. There are too many times where we fail to remember what we did last month, last week or even yesterday. There are too many times where the year breezes past us and before we know it, we are another year older. This pattern and this way of being is sharply interrupted by the ritual known as the Sefirat HaOmer, the Counting of the Omer. In Biblical times the Omer was a grain offering brought to the Temple in Jerusalem and since then has transformed into a ritual with rhythm and movement all of its own.
Each night people from every corner of the globe count how many nights have elapsed from the second night of Passover until the holiday of Shavuot, which celebrates the Revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Every night adds from the night before, slowly building and rising in anticipation and progression towards Shavuot. This ritual concretely and conceptually links the holiday of Passover to the holiday of Shavuot. It makes a profound statement about the nature of the freedom won in Egypt by the ancient Israelites. It sets out to define the very state of what it means to be free.
If the Exodus from Egypt was an unshackling of the physical bonds that held the people of Israel to servitude and bondage then the Revelation at Sinai was the unshackling of the emotional, psychological and spiritual bonds that kept the people in an oppression of the soul and the heart. The 18th century Italian mystic and philosopher Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto underscored this when he commented that the reason Pharaoh increased the physical labor of the Israelites after Moses made his first plea for their release was to further suppress their spirit because the fatigue and tiredness of the body destroys the aspirations of the spirit.
This is the intention behind the count between Passover and Shavuot. The Talmudic rabbis teach that every person in each generation is obligated to see himself or herself as having left the servitude of Egypt and an intrinsic part of that process is the progressive march from the experience of physical freedom to a fuller freedom encompassing not just body but spirit as well. The rituals of the Passover seder help us reconnect into the experience of the Exodus and the deeply important ritual of the Omer help us walk and move through our own deserts towards a life of whole and total freedom.
The Omer brings us to a stop and to reflect that every day and every moment count. Every day is a unique and precious opportunity to walk the journey towards a freedom of purpose and a freedom of dignity.