I hope you enjoy my thoughts and musings about Jewish music, worship, and liturgy, my love for God's creation, and my hopes for humankind. Please feel free to share your comments.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Hanukkah: A Dedication to Light and Learning

December finds us in the midst of the Hebrew month of Kislev and looking ahead to the joyous Festival of Lights, Hanukkah.  One of my favorite holidays in the liturgical calendar, Hanukkah is a time for families to come together -- sharing games, songs, comfort food, and fun. The word that we commonly spell “HANUKKAH” comes from the Hebrew root letters chet - nun - kaf.  The combination of these letters have two basic connotations: to dedicate and to educate or to train.  We use the word Hanukkah in the context of “dedication.”  As the story goes, our temple in Jerusalem was desecrated by the Syrian Greeks.  After the victory over the mighty Syrian army by the small group of Maccabees, the Jewish people cleansed the Temple of idols and purified it again, dedicating it to the worship of the One God.  It is this dedication of the Maccabees that helped to preserve our unique people to this day.  What of our dedication?  How many of us show such dedication to our Jewishness today?  Do we celebrate and defend our uniqueness as Jews?  What of the other meaning of Hanukkah—“to educate or to train?”  Are we committed to educating ourselves and our children as Jews?  It is my hope as we kindle the flames of our Hanukkah candles that we dedicate ourselves to keep alive the flame of Jewish commitment and learning.

Chag urim sameiach!

Thursday, November 1, 2012


Do you ever consider the various ways folks today choose to sign their e-mails? They’ve become so elaborate! Replete with multiple addresses, affiliations, and phone numbers, and embellished with florid fonts, rainbows of color, and a clever anecdote, one’s signature is often much longer than the body of the e-mail itself. Perhaps this is a way to compensate for an e-mail’s lack of feeling and personal contact.

Though I created one of these signatures with two fonts, two colors, and a facebook link to boot, I rarely let an e-mail go without a more personal closing. I worry about the feelings my signature will invoke, taking great pains to insure that my e-mail seems personable and caring. I even debate the choice of words for my closing. Should I say “L’shalom,” or “All the best,” or “Sincerely”? Oftentimes I end up closing with a “Thanks” or “Thank You” because other possible choices seem empty; but merely saying “thanks” feels insufficient as well.

This time of year gives me that same feeling. We celebrate the holiday of Thanksgiving to commemorate the gathering of the Pilgrims who, grateful for surviving a cruel winter and thankful for their harvest, held a feast to offer thanks to God. I cannot begin to fathom what life must have been like for this group who were so dedicated to God and to their faith that they would risk their lives and the lives of their families to observe and practice it. Though I enjoy the holiday of Thanksgiving—preparing our favorite Southern foods, decorating with symbols of bounty and harvest, watching the Macy’s parade—I still feel somewhat shallow, almost guilty for enjoying such things. We  sing “HaMotzi” and share things we are thankful for, but these words seem wholly inadequate. A prayer that attempts to give voice to our intangible gratitude to God has returned to our liturgy in Mishkan T'filah:
 Ilu finu malei shirah kayam     אִלּוּ פִֽינוּ מָלֵא שִׁירָה כַּיָּם...     
 ein anachnu maspikim l'hodot l'cha   אֵין אֲנַֽחְנוּ מַסְפִּיקִים לְהוֹדוֹת לְךָ...   
Were our mouths as full of song as the sea...still we could never thank You enough...
or bless Your name for a ten-thousandth of the myriads of times
that You granted goodness and favor to our ancestors and to us. 

This prayer reminds me of a little child stretching its arms as wide as possible proclaiming, "I love you THIS MUCH!" This is the way I long to express my gratitude every day, for the blessings I enjoy every day, not just at Thanksgiving. As Joshua Heschel said, “Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy.” May we all find a way to show our gratitude each and every day! 

Monday, October 1, 2012

Liturgy, Lights, and Free Will OR We'll Leave the Light On for Ya' (Well, hopefully!)

I love those radio commercials that end “I’m Tom Bodett for Motel 6, and we’ll leave the light on for ya’.” It actually reminds me of one of our prayers that has occupied my thoughts of late: the “Prayer for our Congregation,” which we recite prior to returning the Torah to the Ark. The version with which we are probably most familiar as Reform Jews is actually an amalgam of three prayers composed between the 4th and 11th centuries. The third of these prayers, a Mi Shebeirach from medieval France, calls upon God to bless “this congregation (as a praying body) and all other holy congregations.” God will bestow special reward upon “whoever dedicates synagogues for prayer, whoever enters them to pray; whoever donates lamps for lighting, wine for Kiddush and Havdalah, food for wayfarers, charity for the poor; [and] whoever occupies himself with the needs of the community in a faithful manner.” The word “money” is not to be found; only the tangible articles are—the synagogue building, the items needed to perform the holy tasks inside it, AND most importantly, “whoever enters to pray.” Why would the Reform liturgists do away with this language? Perhaps a return to the original text would not be such a bad thing, for “this congregation and all other holy congregations” are in dire need of these basic necessities; and we are praying that “whoever occupies oneself with the needs of the community” will come to us and stay with us. “Those who donate...” are growing fewer in number as temple affiliation continues to drop lower on the priorities list. Perhaps even you, dear friend, have opted to give less or have considered leaving your congregation. We have lost sight of those concrete items mentioned in the prayer above, both figuratively AND literally. That check we write looks like a lot of money if all we see of the temple is either from the curb as we drop off our children or from our seats in the 23rd row at High Holy Day services. From the curb it is impossible to see the need for “lamps for lighting” and “wine for kiddush.” Would that all could see their temple statements as a reminder of their commitment and not as a bill, as an investment in our community, and not as another financial burden. If there are fewer and fewer who “occupy themselves with the needs of the community,” neither the “holy congregation,” nor the “synagogue to enter to pray” will be here. Our synagogues do not exist for profit. We exist to glorify God and to pass along God’s teachings. We are here to learn with you, inspire you, comfort you, and rejoice with you. Without you, we have no purpose, no raison d'être, for Judaism is a faith based on community, and that takes y-o-u.  We’ll leave the light on for ya’, but we can’t do it without your help and commitment. Come on in... That special reward is waiting.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Coming to Temple: Good for Your Soul AND Your Body

As you are reading this blog, you have most likely just flipped the page on your calendar. Many of us are back into the school routine of packing lunches, checking homework, setting up carpools, etc. Perhaps on your smartphone you sought out one of the many apps that are designed to insure that we are organized, informed, motivated, coupon-savvy, physically fit, environment-friendly, positive-thinking, family-focused, vocabulary-enriched, and performing at our very best.  There must be an app for monitoring every single task or goal conceivably possible. Now that we have programmed our calendars and portable electronic devices to remind us of all the details to which we must attend, let us remember to also take some time to “download an app” to enhance our spiritual side. In just days we will observe Selichot, the late evening service which helps us to perform a scan” of our souls in preparation for the upcoming High Holy Days. What will your scan reveal? Is there any “malware” that you would like to delete? Are there regrets of harsh words, neglected relationships, broken promises? How can we “eliminate these harmful threats” to our soul’s “operating system”? Judaism “has an app for that” known as t’shuvah. T’shuvah, from the Hebrew meaning “to return,” is our opportunity to turn back from the regrets of the past year and “perform a hard reset” so that we are once again on the path of goodness, wholeness, and truth. Maybe you will find that the “T’shuvah app” will awaken your awareness of the Divine in your life.

In her book The Superstressed Solution, Dr. Roberta Lee dedicates an entire section to the effects of spirituality and religion upon our health. She cites a study of some 126,000 people that concluded that those who regularly attend worship services increased their odds of living longer by 29 percent! Lee explains that these individuals have a greater capacity for coping with stress as well as for recovering from illness. Spirituality and communal worship “connects [us] to the world, which enables [us] to stop trying to control things all by [ourselves].” Being a part of a sacred community provides a support network, and when we participate in helping others, our health, too, benefits from those positive feelings. Bonding with others of common beliefs and practices is also beneficial to our well-being as is the hope that a faith can offer to us. Who knew that coming to services could help us live longer!?

I wish you and your family a Shanah Tovah—a year of peace, blessing and worshipping together.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

In just over a week we will arrive at the holiday of Shavu’ot – most likely the least known about, let alone observed – festival on our calendar.  We traditionally hold Confirmation services during this holiday, as Shavu’ot recalls the moment in which God revealed the Torah to us and we accepted the yoke of its commandments.  By holding Confirmation at Shavu’ot, we give our youth the opportunity to re-enact that moment by reaffirming their acceptance of the yoke of Jewish belief and practice.  

On Shavu’ot, we read the Ten Commandments, the definitive account of our acceptance of God’s law. This code of ethical behavior is a core part of the teaching we impart to our young people during their Confirmation studies.  We are also mandated by tradition to read the Book of Ruth. Though our Confirmands will read this in English, most Reform synagogues forego the chanting or reading of the Book of Ruth altogether for the sake of time, substituting other readings or Confirmation rituals. I find that in addition to the Ten Commandments, the Book of Ruth is the model text for teaching Jewish ethical conduct to today’s students: the ideals of conviction, generosity, and loving-kindness, commitment, loyalty and love.

The TaNaKh’s shortest book, the Book of Ruth, is a beautiful story set during the period of the Judges, known to be a time of lawlessness and depravity. The narrative opens as Naomi, her husband Elimelech and their two sons are leaving famine-stricken Israel for the Land of Moav, whose people have long been considered enemies of Israel. The sons take Moabite women as their wives, and within ten years, Elimelech and his sons have all died, leaving Naomi and her two daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah, widowed. The famine in Israel ends, so Naomi decides to return to her homeland. She insists that Ruth and Orpah remain in Mo’av, most likely understanding that in Israel the two Moabite women would be subject to rebuke and discrimination. Elderly Naomi, bitter and grieving, needs support and help as never before; yet her overwhelming generosity and chesed (loving-kindness) dictate that she put the welfare of her daughters-in-law ahead of her own.  Naomi is a strong model of selflessness for our children who live in a “me, me, me” society.

Ruth, (whose name means “companion”) pledges deep loyalty to her mother-in-law, unlike Orpah who stays in Mo’av. Ruth boldly asserts:
"Do not urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Wherever you go, I will go, and wherever you lodge there I will lodge. Your people shall be my people and your God my God. Where you die there I will die, and there I will be buried. May Adonai deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me."
What a valuable teaching this is for our Confirmands!  Ruth demonstrates what true devotion really is. She accepts Judaism wholeheartedly - its laws, values, and people - and is willing to do whatever is necessary to follow God’s commandments. 

The story continues as Ruth and Naomi arrive back in Israel at the time of the barley harvest. Ruth, though exhausted from traveling, goes to work right away to glean what she can from the barley fields as the grain is harvested.  She ends up in the fields belonging to Boaz, who is from the family of her deceased father-in-law.  Rather than pursue a younger man to marry, Ruth offers herself to Boaz so to “redeem” the land belonging to her deceased husband and his family.  It is also obvious that Ruth voluntarily chooses Boaz over a younger man because of his kind and generous nature.

Boaz is, indeed, an exemplar of kindness and respect.  When he arrives at the field, he greets his workers, “May the Lord be with you.”  When Boaz meets Ruth, he shows her where she may gather grain, insures her safety, and gives her water and food, even though he knows she is of Moabite descent.  Boaz also goes above and beyond the law and duty to marry Ruth and provide a home for both Ruth and Naomi, thus insuring that the family name of Elimelech will be perpetuated. Ruth and Boaz have a child who becomes the grandfather of King David and the progenitor of the messiah to come.

In addition to providing lessons about deeds of loving-kindness, loyalty, and love, The Book of Ruth also reminds our Confirmands to always be mindful of the needs of the poor, “the orphan, the stranger, and the widow.”  This is demonstrated in Boaz’s observance of the laws of pe’ah, where we are instructed to leave the edges of a field unharvested, and leket, where we are to leave behind individual stalks that fall from the sheaves so the poor may collect them. 

The Book of Ruth teaches us one final lesson about redemption and hope. The story shows us that God can bring redemption even after the greatest times of despair and loss, and that one act of kindness can transform the world. 

Though we may no longer literally plant seeds and reap a harvest, we can “sow” the seeds of kindness and friendship and reap a bountiful harvest of love, respect, gentleness and humanity. On this Shavu’ot, may our offering to God be the “first fruits” of our kind hearts and helping hands.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Summertime... and the Living is Easy...Except for the Jews

Ahhhh... Summertime... Fish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high... It’s the time for carefree vacations, going away to camp, and making memories with our families. In traditional Jewish consciousness, however, a large part of summer is not for the making of new memories, but rather for commemorating events of the past the tragedies that have befallen our people over the millennia. The Hebrew months of Tammuz and Av that coincide with summer are replete with days of mourning and fast days that were instituted to mark the destruction of both of our sacred Temples, and later came to also memorialize other calamities. 

destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 CE
The Fast of Tammuz commemorates the breach of the walls of Jerusalem by the Babylonians on the ninth of Tammuz in 586 BCE and the same act by the Romans on the 17th of Tammuz in 70 CE.  Tisha B’Av (the Ninth of Av) commemorates the destruction of both the First and Second Temples. Considering all of the fast days in our calendar, Tisha B’Av ranks just behind Yom Kippur in importance. 

Even the period between Pesach and Shavu’ot is considered a time of sadness, for which there are several reasons. We grieve because we are no longer afforded the opportunity to bring our grain offerings to the Temple, and we mourn to also commemorate tragic events known to occur during this time the deaths of over 1,200 disciples of Rabbi Akiva in one year, and the massacres of thousands of German Jews by the Crusaders. There are to be no weddings or other joyous occasions scheduled during this period.  

As Jews who affiliate with a Reform congregation, however, we live our lives as modern, busy Americans. Save for Ha-Shoah the Holocaust, our collective memories of the destruction of our Temples in Jerusalem and the other horrible acts that have been perpetrated against us have, for the most part, dimmed and faded away.  After all, we live in America – the Land of the Free, “Die Goldene Medina.” We are safe and prosperous here with no fear of being expelled or locked in a ghetto. And we have our land of redemption and promise – Medinat Yisrael, the State of Israel. Why continue to mourn and lament?  We cannot change the horrors that have befallen the Jewish people. Should we not move on towards a brighter outlook? How can these days of mourning be of significance for us as liberal, contemporary, American Jews?

I struggle with the summer calendar and its observances every year. Sometimes I fast, sometimes I do not.  When I don't, I feel guilty.  When I do fast I most often cannot feel any kind of spiritual connection, and again I find myself wracked with guilt. This year I have decided to set about finding a way to observe these days in an authentic and meaningful way. In my research of this topic, I found every observance along the gamut as one would imagine – from the early Zionist youth movements who designated Tisha b’Av as a day of recreation and sports, to the view of Professor Ismar Schorsch, the former Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary (of the Conservative movement) who wrote that whereas the fast day of Yom Kippur is designed for self-reflection, “Tisha B'av is dedicated to pondering the nation's destiny.”  For those with this view, It is important for us to maintain a balance between our individual paths and our collective destiny.  There are also those who are angered that control of the Temple Mount was surrendered in the name of peace in 1967; for that reason alone we should mourn and wail louder than ever before.

Because none of these observances or justifications seem to resonate with me, I have decided to create a Tisha b’Av seder, an ordered progression of ritual observances thematically connected to traditional practice, yet relevant to my time and place.  Modeled after the Pesach seder, my seder will mark a similar kind of journey, leading from the hopelessness and despair of destruction, exile, and slaughter, to the hope, promise and redemption that we seek to bring to the world. The beginning of the seder will include such texts as Psalm 137:1, “By the waters of Babylon we sat and wept for Zion,” as well as the chanting of some selections from Aicha, the Book of Lamentations. The table will be set with empty gray plates to represent the fasting with which our people have afflicted themselves for hundreds of years.

As the seder progresses, it will transition with readings and musical selections containing words of comfort from the Prophets and Psalms. Poetry and prose from other traditions may also be included.
Round bowls will then be placed on top of the empty plates, further symbolizing our journey from mourning to hope. Then the seder participants will be served certain foods ritually designated as symbols of wholeness and renewal, such as eggs, olives, grapes, and other round foods from Israel and our own land of plenty.

Would you like to help me craft such a seder? 
I’d love to hear your ideas and suggestions! 

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Field of Honor, Day of Change

  This past Sunday I was afforded the opportunity to speak at the Northbrook, Illinois, "Field of Honor" event. Envisioned by Judy Hughes, president of the Northbrook Historical Society, the Field of Honor contained 1,901 American flags to commemorate the incorporation of Northbrook (then Shermerville) in the year 1901. There were also 43 other flags symbolizing the 43 men and women from Northbrook who gave their lives in service to their country. Each evening during the week of Memorial Day a sunset ceremony was held with members of the American Legion and clergy participating, as well as a cannon salute and the playing of "Taps."  This posting below is the speech that I gave. (For security purposes I have omitted references to certain locations.)

   Good evening, everyone! I want to begin by thanking Judy Hughes for orchestrating this Field of Honor event which has brought such purpose and meaning to this Memorial Day weekend.  And thank you for asking me to participate. I am honored and greatly humbled to be here. 
   What makes the honor even greater (and a bit ironic) for me is that, like Judy [Hughes], I was born and raised on the OTHER side of the Mason–Dixon line, outside of Columbia, South Carolina – a place where the Civil War is STILL being fought to this very day.  There it was incumbent upon every parent to take their children to visit our State House – though not to marvel at its 22 monolithic Corinthian columns (among the largest in the world) nor to see where the government of South Carolina does its work nor to stroll its beautiful grounds nor to visit the various monuments. The main objective of one’s trip to the State House was to see the 6 bronze stars marking the 6 places where the cannonballs of the Union Army struck the Winnsboro Blue Granite walls of our state’s capitol building. I was taught all about the wickedness and treachery of General William Tecumseh Sherman, the heartless enemy who burned my hometown and whose men had the nerve to throw bricks at the statue of George Washington on our State House grounds, breaking off the bottom of Washington’s cane. There was no way, therefore, that we would ever consider observing the official Memorial Day, being that it was initially established to honor the fallen Union soldiers.  On that day, we all went to school as usual. 
   It was not until I lived in New York as a cantorial student that I witnessed my first Memorial Day parade. I was 38 years old. You can see therefore, why having the honor to speak to you this evening is so special and transformative for me. When I moved here some nine years ago, my family was invited for Memorial Day “barbeques.”  (I had to get used to that word “barbeque,” too. In South Carolina, “barbeque” is a FOOD – a meat delicacy drenched in yellow, mustard-based sauce. You EAT barbeque at a cookout or a weinie roast.) At the barbeques I’ve attended here, some folks wore red, white, and blue, but there was no talk of memorializing the fallen members of the armed forces – only how awesome the gelatin mold in the shape of an American flag was and how it always rained on Memorial Day.  It was pretty nice to have a day off from work, though, even if it did rain every year.
   All of that changed Memorial Day of 2008. In late May of 2008, my son Nathan had been in Afghanistan for about 10 weeks – his first deployment. Nathan is a Special Operations Marine. He had been in the Marine Corps since graduating from high school in 2004. His intense training regimen to become a Recon Marine had kept him from going to Iraq, unlike many of his boot camp friends. But now the training was complete, and ten weeks earlier, my husband, my daughter, and I, joined by Nathan's girlfriend (who is now his wife), had sobbed uncontrollably as we watched Nathan board a bus... a bus that would take him and some 60 of his fellow Marines to an air field... to a huge C5 cargo plane... the plane that would carry Humvee’s and trucks and weapons... the plane that would take my little Nate- the-Great wearing his Weeboks and Osh-Kosh overalls to Afghanistan, straight into harm’s way, without passing GO and without collecting $200 dollars. I was SO proud of him.  But I wanted nothing more than to grab him up by the straps of those little Osh-Kosh overalls and carry him back home.
   So on that Memorial Day, May 26 of 2008, I learned what Memorial Day is really about. It’s not about barbeques, or rainy weather, or red, white, and blue gelatin molds. It’s about honor and valor and bravery. It’s about blood and tears and sand and oceans and meadows and fields. It’s about love and passion, dedication and sacrifice. And it’s about paying tribute to those brave men and women who embodied all of that and who gave up THEIR lives so that we can live our lives – our comfortable, entitled, carefree lives – in the Land of the Free.  
   I have not been to a Memorial Day barbeque since the one BEFORE my son was deployed, and I probably never will. My family has a new tradition for Memorial Day.  We drive or walk over to downtown Deerfield, where a banner hangs bearing the names of Deerfield residents who are currently serving in the Armed Forces. I beam with pride as I look up at that name on the banner: Nathan Harris, United States Marine Corps. And I pray with all my might that he will come back to us – in one piece and mentally sound. And then I take a picture of the banner. 
   Looking out upon this Field of Honor, I remember learning about the symbolism of the colors of the flag in school: Red for bravery and to symbolize the blood shed by those who protect our country. White for purity and innocence.  Blue for loyalty and justice.  I know it is these ideals that my son Nathan is fighting to maintain, just as you folks here who fought in World War II, Korea, Viet-Nam, Desert Storm, Iraq, Afghanistan, and all points in between. I am honored and proud that my son is willing to die for his country. It’s quite an elite group.
   It is my hope that those of us who have benefited from the loyalty, the shed blood, and the pure of heart of our fallen service men and women will do all we can to work along side those brave men and women who have stepped up to take their places. We may not have weapons like guns or missiles, but we do have a voice. We can speak out. We can vote, we can advocate, we can donate, we can defend the weak, we can write and e-mail, we can picket, we can protest. We can serve our communities. And in doing so, we can honor the memory of those who did so before us.
   To close I would like to offer a prayer written by the Reverend D.A. Graham while she was a chaplain in Okinawa.
In the quiet sanctuaries of our own hearts,
let each of us name and call on the One whose power over us
is great and gentle, firm and forgiving, holy and healing ...
You who created us,
who sustain us,
who call us to live in peace,
hear our prayer this day.
Hear our prayer for all who have died,
whose hearts and hopes are known to you alone ...
Hear our prayer for those who put the welfare of others
ahead of their own
and give us hearts as generous as theirs ...
Hear our prayer for those who gave their lives
in the service of others,
and accept the gift of their sacrifice ...
Help us to shape and make a world
where we will lay down the arms of war
and turn our swords into ploughshares
for a harvest of justice and peace ...
Comfort those who grieve the loss of their loved ones
and let your healing be the hope in our hearts...
Hear our prayer this day
and in your mercy answer us
in the name of all that is holy.