Category Archives: Jewish

Being in the Wilderness: A Shavuot Experience

 

The quiet allows the voice of our soul to emerge

On the week before Shavuot, we begin the fourth book of the Hebrew Bible, known in English as Numbers. In Hebrew, the book is called BaMidbar (wilderness, desert).

Already we’re experiencing some confusion, why the two different names? Each name refers to a different verse. The name of the book in Hebrew is related to the first verse, which sets the stage for where God speaks to Moses…in the wilderness.

However, the English/Latin name is related to the second verse when God requests Moses to take a census of the Israelite community.

There is a beautiful reason given for the spiritual connection between the two verses but this post will instead focus on the deeper meaning contained within the first verse.

Let’s begin:

וַיְדַבֵּ֨ר יְהוָ֧ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֛ה בְּמִדְבַּ֥ר סִינַ֖י בְּאֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵ֑ד בְּאֶחָד֩ לַחֹ֨דֶשׁ הַשֵּׁנִ֜י בַּשָּׁנָ֣ה הַשֵּׁנִ֗ית לְצֵאתָ֛ם מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם

On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, the LORD spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting……

What is interesting here is the meaning of the Hebrew word for wilderness.

The beauty of the Hebrew language is often, contained within each word, is its opposite meaning. These paradoxes speak to the very essence of creation, in that there is potential for opposing aspects: darkness and light, Inclinations toward the good or evil, our spiritual inclinations versus our bodily passions.

In this case, the Hebrew root word for BaMidbar  also means two things at once. There is both a sense of being limited and yet expansive.

How can that be so?

The three letter Hebrew root of BaMidbar is Dalet (D), Bet (B) and Reysh (R), means all of these: desert, wilderness, words, to speak and thing.

So in a sense, it means that which is limitless yet that which is tangible and identifiable.

It is a word that has so much potential steeped within it. For example if we take just one meaning, speech, it can be something that can be used to transmit ideas that are grand and awesome. yet, when used incorrectly, speech can be reduced to the petty and heartless.

Similarly containing opposites, the wilderness can be a place of peace or a place of threat.

There is a beautiful teaching from the Ohr Torah Institution and Rabbi S. Riskin about this:

It was by means of these Divine words [dibrot] that even the desert [midbar] —a metaphor for an inhospitable and alien exile environment: boiling hot by day, freezing cold by night, and deficient in water, the elixir of life—can be transformed into sacred space, the place of the Divine word (dibur].

The world is a desert [midbar] waiting to become a sanctuary [d’vir] by means of God’s word [dibur], communicated by inspiring leaders [dabarim]. 

Being in the wilderness allowed us to ‘lose ourselves’ enough to be able to receive the Torah. In the wilderness, our destiny was secured by God and so our very ability to live was granted by God every day. In this there was a sense of comfort, even in the middle of ‘nowhere’.

Our sages put it this way:

 Anyone who does not make themselves ownerless like the wilderness cannot acquire the wisdom and the Torah.                                                                          Bamidbar Rabbah 1:7.

This is noted again in the Talmud,

One should be as open as a wilderness to receive the Torah. Nedarim 55a

It is through this process that we can begin the journey that is the source of our lifeline, the Torah. We need to lessen our ego-driven lives to be open enough to receive Torah.

The still small voice in you….how can you honor that voice? How can you become “ownerless” in order to be open to the Divine experience?

I am offering this Shavuot Visualization to you should you want to enter the world of the D-B-R….A Shavuot Visualization

 

 

© Ruth Schapira, 2020. All rights reserved.


If Covid-19 is a test, are we passing?

 

 

What if God is waiting for us to cry out? What if all we need to do is to cry out in despair, as Abraham did thousands of years ago?

חָלִ֨לָה לְּךָ֜ מֵעֲשֹׂ֣ת ׀ כַּדָּבָ֣ר הַזֶּ֗ה לְהָמִ֤ית צַדִּיק֙ עִם־רָשָׁ֔ע וְהָיָ֥ה כַצַּדִּ֖יק כָּרָשָׁ֑ע חָלִ֣לָה לָּ֔ךְ הֲשֹׁפֵט֙ כָּל־הָאָ֔רֶץ לֹ֥א יַעֲשֶׂ֖ה מִשְׁפָּֽט׃

“Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” Genesis 18:25

There is something so biblical about what is occurring now. In addition to all our challenges with dealing with Covid-19, yesterday I heard that there is a swarm of ‘murder hornets’ headed this way.

Is this not plague-like?

Where are the masses of us turning towards God, pleading for a respite from this horror?

But, instead of unifying ourselves during this pandemic challenge, it has created divisions among us.

For me, it has been an impossible challenge to be tolerant of my own people who defy orders of social distancing and as a result, put others at risk at a funeral. And again….for a second time! ?

So, I need to do soul searching, to find that place that allows the anger to wash over me, and try, hard as it is, to put myself in someone else’s place.

I need to do that with many things these days.

If I remain angry, then what have I learned from our history if not to work at being tolerant?

For us as Jews, this is a unique obstacle that has had devastating consequences.

Baseless hatred, known in Hebrew as Sinat Hinam, was what the sages blamed for the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. This was considered even worse than the three most egregious sins: forbidden sexual relations, idol worship and bloodshed.

It sounds so ancient….the destruction of the Second Temple…but what I often forget is that this was the total eradication of everything we had known as a people up to that point. Our way of connecting with God. The rhythm of life that brought us together as a people at least three times a year. Even our societal systems. It all needed to be different.

Yet, there was recovery.

So many times after destruction there was hope.

We already have learned so much about ourselves: both our generosity and our selfishness.

It is so hard, but we need to find a way to strengthen our ties and not dissipate them.

Perhaps in these times each stream of Judaism needs to do the impossible—-to overcome the historic challenges that have separated us and rely on what is at our core as a people, our connection to the One.

If we are undergoing a test of our resilience, it means that we have to cultivate our ability to act humanely in the face of adversity, care for each other in new ways, and strengthen our own communities and the world in new and uncharted ways.

 

 


Do we own our Jewish history?

 

 

I read something from an unlikely source that struck my deepest core as a Jew, and came to a full stop at a passage from the first chapter of “How to be an Anti-Racist”, a new book by Ibram X. Kendi. I’m sure Dr. Kendi did not intend this outcome, in fact, I feel guilt at even sharing this, because I personalized a phrase he used to illustrate a core issue of his, one that influenced his childhood and his present thoughts about racism.

Perhaps in writing this, I am part of the problem he was writing about: maintaining my narrow vision; not seeing the entire picture he was portraying and co-opting a phrase instead, one that relates to my world. But I am compelled to write this and soon, will return to the book when I can focus my proper attention on the larger issue of racism.

For now, as a Jew, I am not able to move past the part where he writes about how his parents came to their revelatory understandings about Christianity.

Dr. Kendi’s description of his parents’ journey to Christianity was stated so simply and powerfully, and I was struck by its truth and how for me, it applies to Judaism, to our own history. And I wondered why we don’t own our own reality.

Kendi writes about his parents’ college years as Black Americans, when his parents began to crystallize their thinking—defining Christianity on their own terms:

“What is your definition of a Christian?” Dad asked in his deeply earnest way. Cone looked at Dad with equal seriousness and responded: “A Christian is one who is striving for liberation.” …… Receiving this definition was a revelatory moment in Dad’s life. Ma had her own similar revelation in her Black student union—that Christianity was about struggle and liberation.                           

                        

Christianity was about struggle and liberation.

Oddly enough, in the instant when I read that description, it resonated with me. I feel that we share that story, even if not in the same way. It seems to be our story too.

Let me say first, that I don’t want to play the comparison game about who struggled more, blacks or Jews. It’s like asking who suffered more, someone who survived the death camps or someone who escaped from slavery?

Some things defy comparison. Our compassion needs to be for ourselves and others. It’s in our Jewish DNA.

So we can pay attention to our own history, and begin to actually own it.

The Jewish story, our history, could be distilled in that one sentence….Judaism is about struggle and liberation.

From slavery in Egypt/mitzrayim to freedom in the desert/bamidbar—our freedom came with even more challenges.

Throughout our history we struggled to be free.

From the destruction of the First Temple to the riches of Babylonia. From the Crusades to the Golden Age of Spain. From the destruction of the Second Temple to a reformulation of what it meant to be Jewish. From the death camps to Israel.

The times when we were truly ‘liberated’ during our thousands of years of history are minuscule (click on the image below to read our history in more detail).

 

Our very name, Yisrael/Israel is derived from the Hebrew root Yud-Shin-Raysh which means to struggle with, contend with, be upright with—and the ‘with’ is none other than God.

We are truly Children of Israel/B’nai Yisrael when we sit with the struggle. When we challenge and when we obey.

Struggle and Liberation….

And it is often a struggle to come to terms with liberation.

Thousands of years of disgrace, discrimination, and hatred seemed to disappear ….until now. Now, we are dealing with hate speech.  Antisemitism. Death threats. BDS. Academic Freedom. Muggings. Killings.

In North America, it is a struggle to maintain a strong Jewish identity in a free society. It is a struggle to be different. It is a struggle to have faith.

Israel’s challenges are borne in part, from her liberation as a free state, which seems to foment hatred by others.

Freedom has a price. It demands our attention and not taking anything for granted.

May we be strong enough to struggle, may we be able to appreciate our freedom while being strong and bold enough to stand up for ourselves as Jews. May we stay the course, not to survive, but to thrive.


Shavuot: reminding me of who I need to be

It is hard for me to personalize Shavuot, though I know there is great spiritual meaning to be found within it.

Shavuot is one of the three major holidays named in the Bible.  As such, there is special designation as one of the Shalosh Regalim (literally three legs–meaning pilgrimage festivals). Then, it was a time of a huge in-gathering of the Jewish people who trekked to Jerusalem to celebrate the harvest. In later rabbinic times, Shavuot was designated as the time of the giving of the Torah.

Important, right?

But, embedded within the two other holidays, Passover and Sukkot, there are tools that help me imagine as if I was truly there. In the Haggadah, phrasing like “Avadim Hayinu” (we were slaves) helps me get back to that time of bitter slavery. The salt water, the charoset, the naming of the plagues…all those are brilliant memory instigators that tend to stick. The sukkah that my husband builds and we eat in during Sukkot is a substantial trigger of transport, to what it was like being in the desert and living out in the fields. The lulav and etrog are physical reminisces of the harvest.

Those are palpable reminders that help me take a journey back into my imagination, to a different time, and allows me to think of myself as part of a larger picture. Shavuot has no such tools for me.

“What about the Omer you say? Isn’t that tangible?” Right, yes, the counting of the Omer, sefirat haOmer, is a concrete way for me to bridge Pesach and Shavuot (the counting begins on the second night of the Seder until day 50, Shavuot), and offers me a spiritual time of introspection and momentum-building.

But yet, I am searching for a ritual that has some heft to it, and not the kind you get from eating cheesecake and dairy foods.

Shavuot is a much harder holiday to grab onto, and there are no built in ‘bells and whistles’ to easily awaken us to the grandeur of the experience. Shavuot demands something much more difficult and in some ways, more subtle.

We commonly refer to the chag as commemorating an event, the giving of the Torah, but we are discouraged from thinking of it as a one-time event. Instead, it is what we try to commemorate everyday as a constant unfolding of the Torah’s principles and teachings within our lives, as we commit to live by it everyday. Truly, it is an overwhelmingly awesome holiday.

In opposite ways, the desert and the fields during harvest were times of intensity, and brought us together as a people in distinctive ways that we get to revisit every Passover and Sukkot. But I need a way to bring me back to the time when I was part of that nation standing before Sinai….a nation, a people. A people united in spirit. With a message to offer that emanated from the charge to live life in an elevated way. To be holy. To strive to be something better. I need to experience that.

As a people, we face the experience of the Torah alone, but together. Each person is a witness of themselves, and what they know to be a higher standard of behavior.  But we are also responsible for one another. In these times, simply regarding our own journeys does not serve us as a people, and today, that might seem more challenging than ever.

We can not only ask “How do I measure up?” but “how do we measure up as a people?”

I need to regard myself as part of a people on a regular basis. I need to speak up when we are not living our highest ideals, even when it is difficult to do so; to put myself and my opinions ‘out there’. I need to be a participant and not a spectator.

Perhaps this Shavuot we will inch a little closer to the realization that Am Yisrael Echad, the people of Israel are one.

May you experience the blessings that Shavuot offers us.

 

 


Will you value your baggage more than a life?

What would you do in an emergency?

I heard something disturbing that I couldn’t shake off. This is not what I usually write about, but I feel compelled to not let this incident go by without a comment.

A Russian jet crashed, on the runway, the rear of the plane totally swallowed up by flames as it made its emergency landing. The circumstances and causes are still under investigation. Seventy-eight passengers were on the plane, 41 of whom died.

The whole event was upsetting, but what struck me was how the reporter ended her report:  “…..some were fortunately able to leave the front of the plane with their luggage”. This did not strike the reporter as odd, and there was not further comment as the station moved on to the next story.

It was the phrase “with their luggage” that got me sick. I couldn’t help visualizing the entire frantic situation (this is why I can’t watch violent movies)…people hysterically trying to get off the plane, escaping immanent death, while people were going into the overhead bins to get their luggage. 

How could people think about taking their belongings at a time when seconds count? The aisles are narrow, people need to wait for others in front of them, any delay could be tragic. Would people value their own possessions over the lives of others? What does this say about how we honor ourselves as God’s creations? Everything in our Jewish tradition is about the preservation of life, not the preservation of things. On the holiest of days, even if it means breaking the rules of observances, we are taught that the value of life is above all else, a value that is known as “Pikuach Nefesh”.

I wanted to find out more information about evacuation procedures. Can people opt to hold up the evacuation process because they want to take their belongings? Doesn’t the Federal government have regulations about that? Google complied and with speed. Some things were upsetting but unfortunately not surprising.

This 168 page report, from the National Transportation Safety Board describes results of multiple evacuation procedural trials and sadly concludes “that most passengers seated in exit rows do not read the safety information provided to assist them in understanding the tasks they may need to perform in the event of an emergency evacuation, and they do not receive personal briefings from flight attendants even though personal briefings can aid passengers in their understanding of the tasks that they may be called upon to perform

The pertinent section for this discussion, Retrieval of Carry-On Baggage, states in passenger pre-flight briefing materials along with pictures, that “carry-on luggage should not be taken during an evacuation” (p. 78) making the message clear. In addition, flight attendants commanded passengers to “leave everything” during the evacuation. Despite these methods, passengers often took their belongings. In one episode, “nearly 50 percent reported attempting to remove a bag during their evacuation” (p.67). 

The report noted that flight attendants receive training on ways to efficiently maintain a constant flow of passengers out of the emergency exits, however, “flight attendants reported that their attempts were often thwarted by passengers’ insistence on retrieving their carry-on luggage before evacuating” (p.67).

This has me shaking my head: “Passengers exiting with carry-on baggage were the most frequently cited obstruction to evacuation.” (Ibid). “By retrieving luggage during an evacuation, passengers increase the potential for serious injuries or loss of life.”

It seems that other posts have been written about this issue: “Don’t Be Selfish And Do This is an Emergency Evacuation” is an example and offers video clips of passengers evacuating an emergency exit with their bags.

I hope and pray that I will never be in the situation that people found themselves in today. I can’t imagine how frightful it must have been to be in that plane. I am trying very hard not to judge those who left the plane with their bags. Maybe getting their bags was their security. Maybe they resorted to robotic behavior. Maybe in times of crisis, they weren’t able to think clearly.

I learned a lot about human behavior today, and was mostly saddened by what I read. I know that as human beings, we so often rise to the occasion to help others, and I will focus my attention on that.

 

 


When “Never Again” becomes “Yet Again”

Yet Again?

This piece in The Hill, written by Rabbi Steinmetz, senior rabbi at Congregation Kehillath Jeshurun and editor-at-large at J’accuse Coalition for Justice is a well-expressed post about our inability to respond properly as a Jewish community to recent tragic murders. These are heart-wrenching tragedies borne of the oldest hatred, Antisemitism. Please click here to read the post and be informed. Comments welcomed.


How to Approach Passover Like a Teacher

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For those of us hosting a Passover seder, there are often so many preparations we need to do in advance: buying, organizing, cleaning and cooking are just a few things we’re involved with. Yet sometimes, planning for the seder itself gets lost in the mix. How do we encourage ourselves and our guests to feel what we need to at the seder? How can we enhance the retelling of the Exodus story as if we too, are in the midst of leaving a narrow place and entering an expansive place of freedom?

Why not spend some time now, before the activity rush hits, of planning what will occur at your seder? This might seem like a ridiculous notion, since the word “seder” already implies that there is an order to what will occur during the experience. The Haggadah pretty much spells that all out for us. Yet, often we settle for the time-honored (and boring) tradition of taking turns around the table, reading from the Haggadah.  Think about this for a minute——did you ever enjoy this practice or find it meaningful? For some, reading the entire Haggadah is the only way to fulfill the obligation to retell the story, which alone takes a lot of time, so this post will not be relevant for you. 

Passover is the consummate educational event in many households, and there are so many opportunities to infuse the meal with intentionality. If we approach the seder with the attitude of a Jewish educator, we might think of it the way we would plan a lesson, and the best lessons offer these components:

  • A set induction, or commonly called a trigger to set the stage for the lesson. It can be thought of as a commercial for what’s to come. An example: Which of the symbolic items on the Seder plate do you most relate to and why? A deeper question:  Like Pharoah, has your heart ever been ‘hardened’? . Another option: make a ‘Haggadah gallery‘ by displaying  all the different Haggadot you own on a table, vote for favorites and explain why. Alternatively, you can ask guests to bring their favorites from home.
  • Essential questions to  frame the lesson (also called Questions of Meaning). Examples might be: What is your Egypt (what ‘narrow’ place do you need to leave behind that is ‘enslaving’ you)? “Let My People Go” is a powerful statement in the Torah, yet it is not recounted in the Haggadah.  Why do you think this is so?  OR “Let My People Go” is only a partial part of what Pharoah is asked to do. What is the second part of that phrase? Why is that often left out?  (you can find this phrase  here and here. You can also discuss the differences in the text. 
  • Learning Outcomes: what will people be walking away with? What deep learning will occur? An example is: How did the notion of obtaining a people’s freedom spur on different revolutions for self-determination, which have ripple effects even today? For some background on this idea see “What’s Your Exodus Story?  Powerful statements have often rallied people behind a cause. Think also of: “If you will it, it is no dream”, ‘I Have a Dream”, or “Give me Liberty or Give me Death” . Is there a call-to-action today that resonates with you? Why or why not? What other sayings can you think of that would inspire others? What theme resonates with you: Being a small minority among the majority? Holding on to your traditions despite any danger this might hold? Enjoying the predictability of life versus the freedom of self-determination? The idea of freedom with or without responsibility? 
  • Learning Activities: what will your guests be doing to get them to the end point? Examples might be new sensations of taste, or a twist on traditional customs (after the dipping of the Karpas —parsley or potato—why not offer other dips?). What simulations can spur on discussion? Who can act out the best scenarios of the each of the plagues? What debate can you engage in?

Our opportunity at the seder is to tell stories and pass them on through the generations. It is part of the reason why the tradition is so compelling, year after year….and why Passover is the most celebrated holiday by American Jews (according to this source, 70%). This is what brings us together as a people. 

May your seder experiences be fulfilling.

Chag Kasher v’sameach!

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