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Jewish inspiration

Uncategorized April 27, 2014

Staying In for Yizkor

Yizkor is one of the strangest events that happens in a synagogue.  Most of the members leave the sanctuary, and only some stay to say a special prayer that only applies to them.  The reason for this is that if someone has both of their parents alive, and is thus not obligated to say Yizkor, it would be an “ayin hara” to stay in and have all the bereft congregants feel envious.

Yizkor is said four times a year: on Yom Kippur, the last day of Sukkot, the last day of Passover, and the second day of Shavuot.  There’s also a custom to light a yahrtzeit candle for our loved one the night before Yizkor is said, and to say “L’EEloy nishmat [Hebrew name ben/bat father’s Hebrew name]” which means, “may this be an elevation of the soul of [insert name of loved one]”.  A candle is compared to a soul in a number of places in Jewish literature and lighting a candle is a Jewish way to memorialize a loved one.


I’m in the Yizkor Club – the club no one wants to be in.  I’ve been saying Yizkor since I am 7 years old, aware of the pity for being so young.  Even now at 39, it’s somewhat depressing that a person my age has to say Yizkor, even though it’s actually one of my favorite things to say.  I’ve always connected very strongly to what Judaism teaches us about the afterlife, and in Yizkor, it’s so poignantly and openly discussed – essentially, permission to dwell on death.  
It’s kind of like the elephant in the room.  Talking about the loved ones that we miss, especially decades later, is something that’s not socially appropriate most of the time, and those of us who have lost a loved one treasure the opportunity to talk about them, cry for them, and mourn a mini-mourning.  More, Yizkor is my chance to offer help to my deceased father by asking God to remember him in the next world.  This is incredibly empowering in a situation which mostly leaves one feeling helpless.
It always suprises me how short Yizkor is.
God, please remember the soul of my father, my teacher, Moshe ben Aryeh Leibush, who has gone on to his world.  Because of this, I will commit to giving tzedakah in his merit.  May his soul be bound up in the bonds of life, with the sould of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah and with the other righteous men and women who are in the Garden of Eden; and let us say Amen.
That’s it.  But the old ladies in shul always hung around for longer, leaving me wondering what on earth they were doing for so long.  So since I didn’t want to leave conspicuously early, I just used those moments to meditate on my loss, and my hopes for the future.
It was in those moments, I discovered the Kel Malei Rachamim prayer that delves even more beautifully into what is going on with the souls of our loved ones in the next world.
God who is full of mercy, who dwells on high, please find a good peacefulness, on the wings of the Shechinah (Divine Spirit of femininity), in the lofty heights of the holy and pure, who shine like the brilliant brightness of heaven, to the soul of Moshe ben Aryeh Leibush, who has gone to his eternal rest.  Because of this I commit to giving tzedakah on behalf of his soul.  May his resting place be in the Garden of Eden.  Therefore, may the Master of mercy care for him under the protection of His wings forever, and bind his soul in the bond of everlasting life.  God is his inheritance and may he rest in peace, Amen.
These last few lines are so incredibly moving and comforting for me.  They remind me anew each time that death is not an end, that what we see is not all there is, that I matter in continuing the legacy of my father, that Jewish continuity effected by me and my siblings matter to him, and that I am not at all helpless in the face of loss and tragedy.
Yizkor.
May God remember, and may we remember.
What has your experience been with saying Yizkor?
Uncategorized February 28, 2014

Blink

(spoiler: sobering post ahead)
Two weeks ago, I posted the following request on Facebook: 
“Friends, I don’t usually ask for this but perhaps you could, right now, spare a moment to offer up a prayer in whatever language you know for two women who are on my mind. 
Naomi bas Rosalia, a woman who fell here today at our conference and is in serious condition in the hospital. Ahuva bas Sara, a young mom in our community with breast cancer who’s having scans tomorrow at 9 am. I truly appreciate the gesture of care and solidarity. May we share only good news.”
It’s two weeks later, and here’s the update on Nelly, the woman who fell, that I received last night via email:
“She has been in the Rehab Hospital now for 10 days and she’ll probably be there another 10 days.  She has 3 hours of therapy a day – walking, going up and down stairs, etc.  She is doing very well, but it will be a long recovery to get back to normal.  She did have a significant brain injury, but thank G-d, she has no cognitive issues.  In fact, she did the math and logic tests at the hospital so fast that the staff commented they couldn’t think as fast as Nelly could.  Nelly works with the financial computer systems for the National Endowment for the Arts, so she is definitely gifted in math.  Her stitches and staples in her head came out yesterday, so she is looking forward to washing her hair!”
The second woman, Ahuva, passed away last Friday.
None of us thought Nelly would make it.
None of us thought Ahuva would die.
On Rosh Hashanah, we recited the following:
“For Your Name signifies Your praise: hard to anger and easy to appease, for You do not wish the death of one deserving death, but that he repent from his way and live. Until the day of his death You await him; if he repents You will accept him immediately. It is true that You are their Creator and You know their inclination, for they are flesh and blood. A man’s origin is from dust and his destiny is back to dust, at risk of his life he earns his bread; he is likened to a broken shard, withering grass, a fading flower, a passing shade, a dissipating cloud, a blowing wind, flying dust, and a fleeting dream.”
Life and death are in His hands – in the space of one second, everything can change.  A person of faith really, truly, literally believes this with every fiber of his being.  
Remember “Our Town”?  Remember when Emily decides to return to Earth to re-live just one day, her 12th birthday? She finally finds it too painful, and realizes just how much life should be valued, “every, every minute.” Poignantly, she asks the Stage Manager whether anyone realizes life while they live it, and is told, “No. The saints and poets, maybe – they do some.” She then returns to her grave, watching as George sadly kneels at her graveside. The Stage Manager comments on the probable lack of life beyond Earth, and the play ends.
When Nelly fell, I thought, “There, but for the grace of God go I.”  That I am safe any moment of any day is a miracle worthy of gratitude at all times.  And when Ahuva died, I thought, “There, but for the grace of God go I.”  Do I realize how much life should be valued “every, every minute?”  Do you?
If you had one day left, what would you do with it?  Because, you know, not everyone gets the proverbial 120 years to fix those mistakes and get it right.  Today, this minute, tell someone you love that you love them.  Decide to finally do that one mitzvah you’ve been planning on.  Say a sentence of gratitude to God – for life, that most precious, most underappreciated gift.  Blink, and you miss it.  
Uncategorized February 13, 2014

The Day We Prayed

It was toward evening in Rockville, Maryland as the second day of the conference progressed.  Dinner was winding down and we anticipated a session from a woman who had sailed the Pacific for 2 years with her husband and two kids after he got laid off, followed by a “best practices” presentation by various city representatives.  The evening would close with a soulful musical session of Jewish spiritual tunes.

There was a collective gasp that arose from the front of the room.  I casually looked up, expecting the usual relieved laugh and “everyone’s okay” from the crowd.

It did not come.

Instead were swift shouts of “call 911!” “Is there a doctor??” “Is she OK?”

She was not OK.

A woman had leaned on a railing that overlooked a stairwell.  The railing broke away from the floor and supporting wall, sending the woman down, down, down… panic, distress, and grief filled the air of that room.

Here’s what I know.  I cannot help from a medical standpoint.  And people in crisis will not improve with rubberneckers.  So I did what I know how to do in a crisis: I prayed.  I fished through my handbag for my prayerbook, flipped quickly to the back where the Book of Psalms is printed, and started saying whatever my eyes fell on.  I don’t know what happened next, but someone gave me a microphone, directed the women away from the scene of the tragedy, and before I knew it, I was leading the group in saying Psalms, word by painstaking Hebrew word, phrase by painstaking phrase.

This group.  Many had never prayed before.  Many had no idea what we were saying, or why.  I never lead groups in prayer without introducing, explaining, translating.  But there we were, as the emergency crew arrived, as she was carried out, mercifully conscious, to the waiting ambulance, as people were instructed to move cars, to move away, we kept going, phrase by phrase, empowered by what we could do.  Empowered by the strength in numbers.  Empowered by our bond, our solidarity, from that moment of panic to that moment of doing.  Empowered by doing just that, saying those words that were not understood but whose cadence reminded us of our common bond: Hebrew, though we may not understand it; spirituality, though our definitions of its expression may vary; care and concern for our fellow sister, though many of us had never even met her.

That moment was magical, transformational.  Beauty in the midst of tragedy.

I know I shall never forget it.

Please spare a prayer, in whatever language you know, for Naomi bat Rosalia.

Uncategorized January 28, 2014

Parent Yourself

There’s so much talk about parenting these days.  Don’t be a helicopter mom.  Don’t bubble-wrap your kids.  Don’t hire people to write their college term papers.  (Yes.)  Teach them to stand up to bullying.  Teach them not to bully.  To clean up their language. To handle technology.  And in one Dove-sponsored video, teach them to take a selfie.  (Yes.)

This is all, possibly, good.

What no one is saying is this: parent yourself.

Teach yourself not to be bubble-wrapped.  Teach yourself to stand up to bullies.  To manage technology.  To write your own work.  To clean up your language.

Whenever I teach a group of adults about a particular concept in Judaism, a value, a higher, more ethical way of living, the FIRST thing people usually think about is their kids.  “How can I teach this to my kids?”  But that’s not really the first thing.  The first question should be, “How can I teach this to myself?”

The Jewish world-view I was raised with teaches that you’re never done growing up.  That ethical development and responsible decision-making is never complete.  You don’t get a free pass to drink, swear, and gamble indiscriminately because “you’re a grown-up.”  Being a grown-up means MORE responsible behavior, not less.

And no, not only because this is the most effective way to parent (it is), but because it is the most effective way to BE, whether you have kids or not; whether your kids are grown or small; whether you’re pleased with how they’ve turned out, or sadly, otherwise.

Take all the questions you would direct toward your child, like:

  • Did you clean up your room?
  • Are you careful with what you post online?  It’s there forever, you know.
  • Are you treating your siblings and parents with respect?
  • Are you cultivating self-control?
  • Are you eating healthfully?
  • Are your spending habits sustainable?
  • Are you succumbing to peer pressure?
  • Are you dressing to impress others?
  • Are you relying on others to build your self-esteem?
  • Are you reaching your potential?

Now ask these questions to yourself.  The answers may not come easily.

Parent, parent thyself.

Uncategorized November 10, 2013

Post Bar Mitzvah

I’m sorry if some of you are sick and tired of hearing me talk about my son’s bar mitzvah.  One more post on the post-bar-mitz (sorry for the lousy pun) and I’m done.  I think.

I’m still busy clearing stuff out of my house, returning platters, writing thank you cards and finding space for all my son’s new Jewish texts, so this post will be done quick and dirty… here we go.

1. “He did a great job!”  Thanks!  I don’t consider that a reflection on me, just as if he’d flopped I wouldn’t consider it a reflection on me.  I’m glad he did a nice job.  I’m happy for him, and I’m happy, honestly, for his grandparents.  In the grand scheme of things, though, it’s not that central.

2. I’m deep in the FOBISIDI phase.  That’s “fear of bumping into someone I didn’t invite.”  If you fall into that category (I do, for many other events) I hope you will judge me favorably.  Here are some options to help you along:

  • I goofed.  (I’m frightfully fallible.)
  • You come along with like 10 other people in your category.  People I carpool with.  People I see once a month.  People who all know each other.  If I invited you, it would be weird that all those other people didn’t get invited too.
  • I honestly tried to figure out, if it were your son’s bar mitzvah, would I be invited?  If I figured probably not, I didn’t extend the invite.  (Could be I goofed…see the first option.)
  • I know a lot of people and have a ton of relatives.  We were seriously limited in space.  I still like you.  And I hope you still like me.  
But I still have a bad case of FOBISIDI.
3. I’m so glad that all Jews pronounce “bar mitzvah” the same way.  It doesn’t matter if you are Orthodox, Modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, or non-Jewish.  We all say it the same.  This gave me joy and peace.  I know.  I’m weird.
4. At the bar mitzvah, my worlds came together.  My ultra-Orthodox friends all the way to my non-Jewish friends.  Again, this gave me great joy and hope for the future of the Jewish people.
5. My son is different, post-bar mitzvah.  While regular readers here know that I’m hardly a fan of big hoopla surrounding bnai mitzvah, it seems that the big deal has left my son impressed with what actually changed for him.  I am glad he recognizes that big deal = responsibility.  After the lights go down, and the wrapping paper is thrown out, that’s what it’s all about.  I do not take this for granted, and continually pray that he gets it.
6. We had a kiddush at our Orthodox shul (mostly for our Orthodox friends who are used to that sort of thing) and a Sunday night event for our out-of-towners and other friends.  The Sunday night event, while deeply enjoyable and fun, was not a “party.”  There were hardly any kids there.  No favors.  No activities.  What was there?  A siyum (completion of Torah study).  A short talk by my son, about Shabbat.  A talk by my grandfather, telling my son what’s important in life.  Lots of my friends talking, eating and socializing.  A few words from my son’s principal.  At the end, impromptu dancing with my son’s great-grandmother at the center.  I’m happy.  That’s exactly what I was hoping.
And now.  For some sleep…. zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz
Uncategorized September 30, 2013

Real Life

Well, the holidays are all over, and it’s time to get back to real life.

For those of you who celebrate the whole week of Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah in addition to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur…you know exactly of what I speak.  Especially if your kids have been home for like two weeks straight after just barely starting school.

So, this real life for which we pine.  What is it?

Schedule.
Bedtimes.
Regular-sized meals (as opposed to feasts).
Work.
School.
Errands.
Crossing off the lists of things to do.

And what we’ve been doing the past few weeks?

Focusing on the meaning of life.
Joy.
Family.
Yeah, food.
Leisure.
Naps.
Praying.

Which is real life?
And which is the part to get over with?

Controversial Observations, Uncategorized September 15, 2013

The Elephant in the Sanctuary

So we’re all saying the confessional, yesterday. And we self-flagellate, symbolically, mostly. And we say we did all those things. But here’s the small problem:

*I didn’t actually do all those things.*

To be sure, I did some of them. Most of them. Many repeatedly and habitually. And maybe for some of the crimes I didn’t commit, I was nevertheless negligent in ways I am unaware. (Sorry for the abstract language but I confess to God alone and in no way am giving specifics here!)

What am I to think when I beat my chest and declare “I did it” when I’m pretty sure I didn’t do it?

Well.

Maybe it means I was too unruffled when I saw others trespassing on this value.

Maybe it means I didn’t do enough to be an example in this area.

Maybe it means I’ve plateaued and have stopped striving to improve.

Maybe I’ve overlooked this value in a very subtle form.

And maybe I’m apologizing on behalf of an unknown fellow Jew simply because we are all connected and all mutually responsible.

(I like the last one best.)

Wishing all my readers a beautiful year.