There’s been some pretty intense facial hair around the ISJL office lately. If you stopped by in May, you might exclaim: “What’s with the beards?!”
See, during the counting of the Omer, Rabbi Matt Dreffin, Lex Rofes, and Dan Ring decided to ignore the Southern humidity and grow out their beards for some very Jewish reasons.
Read below to find out why each of them finds this practice meaningful!
Why is counting the omer meaningful for me? Of all Jewish commandments, it simply lasts the longest. Jewish holidays almost never last longer than seven or eight days, and even the month of Elul, another spiritually rich period, is only 29 days. The Omer? 49 days of counting, contemplating, and for me – beard-growing.
Now, some might argue that doing something 49 times does not automatically imbue that action with meaning. But with the Omer, we have spiritual practices to help us with that. The physical presence of a beard on my face reminds me, with every last itch, that I am in the midst of a special time of year. The application of s’firot – attributes of God – to each of the 49 days, creates a powerful sense of uniqueness in every day.
Most importantly for me, the Omer creates an incredible feeling of anticipation for Shavuot. When that day, which I will have been anticipating for almost two months, finally arrives, I will feel as if I have earned that holiday. The Torah that I receive is not something I am merely given. It’s something I achieve.
I’ll be honest – I’ve had a short beard for the past year or so. I really enjoy having a beard, seeing how wild and unruly it can get before I feel the need to clean it up. Thus, for me, growing a beard for the Omer is great fun. It’s also quite meaningful. Within the context of the Omer, growing a long beard helps me connect to my Jewish past and present. When I look in the mirror, I can’t help but think about my male ancestors, their beards, and their bearded journeys that made it possible for me to be here today. No matter how different their lives and experiences might have been from my own, I’m pretty sure their beards looked quite similar to mine!
As my beard gets longer and longer, I realize that it becomes out of the ordinary; it stands out. I can’t just be one of those normal folks walking down the street. Instead, I become the guy with the unruly beard. I’m forced to realize what it’s like to be someone who can’t hide their differences. It helps me to obtain even a quick and cursory glance into what’s like to be “the other.” As American Jews, we can easily blend in. We can forget what it’s like be separate and what it’s like to stand out. It becomes easy to forget our Jewish (and human) responsibility to the world – our responsibility to be the best people we can be, and to treat people with respect and dignity no matter who they are or what they look like. My omer beard helps me to reconnect and rededicate myself to our sacred collective responsibility.
And did I mention it’s fun too?
With most Jewish rituals, I strive to see them each time in a new light. Ever since coming across a Tobi Kahn sculpture that focused on “Omer Counters,” I’ve been highly focused on finding unique ways of commemorating the season. Last year I made sure to follow the daily GIF on a Tumblr that used The Wire’s character, Omar, to notch each day that passed. This year, being so focused on preparing for our ISJL annual Passover Pilgrimage, I didn’t feel I had time to properly search out a new avenue to bring this piece of Judaism into my spiritual practice.
So, whilst driving to my first destination for my first seder, a quote from Ecclesiastes sprung to mind. “That which was is that which will be.” (Eccl 1:9) In other words, what “traditional” practice(s) had I not yet incorporated into my observance of the Omer? I rubbed the top of my head, still freshly shorn from 36 Rabbis Shave for the Brave, and it occurred to me: I had never grown out my beard! (Coincidentally, I forgot to pack any sort of razor or shaving cream).
What grew out of this practice was a lot more than just my beard. I found it reflected the experience we anticipate in a great way. As the beard lengthened, it became thicker, warmer, oppressive. We yearn toward the day when we will be able to cut it, just like we yearn to be at the end of the omer receiving the Torah on Shavuot. I also found that I was touching the growth around my mouth, the lengths of the mustache impeding everything. It made me think of all the ways we talk about the word of Torah being on our lips, the importance of our mouths to our Religion. While I’m glad to bid my beard bye-bye, the practice this year has been so fulfilling, I decided that instead of saying “shalom” (goodbye), I would say, “l’hit’ra-ot” (see you later) to my scruff.
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The story of Passover, and the Exodus from Egypt, involves the oppressor (Pharaoh and the Egyptians) and the oppressed and enslaved (the Jews). At seders around the world, Pharaoh is the symbol from figures ranging from literal modern day slave-owners and dictators to metaphorical oppressors, such as depression and cancer. The common thread: they are destructive, and all too prevalent.
However, when people ask me what I am doing for Passover, I answer with a one-liner that only serves to stun the person I’m talking with (and always makes me feel like I just said that flowers are hideous or something): To me, Passover is the day when I celebrate the freedom I have to not observe Passover.
As someone who was raised ultra-orthodox, it is not a freedom I take for granted.
However, it leads me to wonder why I have a hard time celebrating freedom from tyranny, slavery and other similar forces. This year, I realized what is missing for me. It is an understanding that we are in a world where my freedom may be linked to another’s oppression—particularly when it comes to the freedoms associated with Jewish life.
Passover epitomizes this for me. We hear about the experiences of Jews who had to overcome adversity in order to celebrate Passover. The idea that Jews around the world can observe Passover freely is a story of triumph and a cause for celebration. But, what is missing for me is an exploration of how the freedom to celebrate Passover can be oppressive to others. It can be oppressive because it is not a choice and is, in fact, a sort of “Egypt” for some who are seeking to survive or escape their ultra-orthodox communities of origin.
I have similar feelings about other Jewish practices like the mikvah (ritual bath). There is a growing trend of Jewish communities building beautiful spa-like mikvahs for women who want to partake in the set of laws that are known as Taharas Hamishpacha (family purity). The experience of going to a mikvah changed the status of a woman who had her period from being impure to pure. I’m glad women today have found a way to create a magical experience of going to the mikvah. Mikvah goers oftentimes enjoy the experience of being pampered, relaxing and tuning into their bodies. (I, too, enjoy going to a spa.) But, it troubles me when I see a disconnect between that beautiful experience and the experience of my high school peers, some of whom dreaded the experience of going to the mikvah, but didn’t have the freedom to skip a month, or opt-out altogether.
Freedom does not just mean the freedom to do things; it means the freedom to not do them, or to do them in our own way.
My hope this Passover is that we recognize that freedom is precious and worthy of celebration and safe-guarding. We must be sure that our freedom does not enable the freedom of others to be trampled. May we all appreciate the freedoms that we do have, and continue advocating for others’ freedom as well.
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As we approach the winter holidays, one thing will likely dominate our minds: doors.
What? Doors weren’t the first thing on your mind? Come on! We just had the ringing of doorbells on Halloween; next up is the opening of doors to family and friends on Thanksgiving; and this year, that occasion will coincide with the rededication of the Temple’s doors, as we celebrate Hanukkah (and the mash-up “Thanksgivukkah” we keep hearing about).
Understanding that doors play a central place in our secular and religious lives, as the threshold to meaning and community, I wanted to share with you something interesting that I observed while visiting Temple Emanuel in Longview, Texas. There, the mezuzot are affixed to the left side of the doors, not the right; and, they lean outward as opposed to inward.
When I asked the co-president of this Reform congregation how they got into this “unorthodox” position, I was told a fascinating story. Originally, the mezuzot were on correctly. The doors, however, were not, as they opened inwards as opposed to outwards, which is the standard for all public buildings. Thus, the congregation was forced to turn the entire door frame around.
“But, what difference does the door’s direction really make?” I wondered. Then, it hit me! In cases of emergency, the doors in a public building need to open outward as to manage the rapid flow of people exiting. Go ahead. Look around you. I promise that you’ll notice that just about all public buildings’ doors open outward.
“So, where,” you may ask, “do they open inward?”
And here is where we find a powerful message. In outward-opening doors, a public space unconsciously imparts the message of departure and exclusion; whereas, our homes – through their inward opening doors – relates welcoming and inclusion. Likely, that was the original intent behind Emanuel’s construction: to be an extension of home, wherein all would be welcomed.
So as friends and family, neighbors and strangers, get poised to go from door to door this winter holiday season, let us keep in mind that every knock is a knock of opportunity. And, whether the door opens inward or outward, let’s just be mindful to keep it open to all.