Thursday, December 12, 2013

On the way to the URJ Biennal

As rabbi’s kids my daughters are dragged to attend more than their fair share of Jewish events and activities and right now we are on a train headed to the URJ 13th Biennial - the world’s largest gathering of Reform Jews. I have been looking forward to Biennial - seeing old friends sharing best practices and hearing about all the ways that Reform Judaism is thriving. With multiple options for worship and study and discussion it is a chance to live Judaism that is not always as easy in the real world. It is Jewish camp from grown ups.

I want my kids to see that you can be an engaged Jewish adult without being a Jewish professional. That the feeling of connection and community that they have at camp can be found well beyond their teenage years. To know that those NFTY friendships made in high school really do become lifelong friendships.  To see that a vibrant Jewish community happens when people work together to create one. That all the things they love about camp can exist even when they will one day be sending their own kids to camp. That Reform Judaism is alive and well - and serious, and spiritual, and studious, and joyful, and dynamic, and diverse and authentic.


Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Rosh Hashanah Sermon: Be Vulnerable in the New Year





My father died seven months ago.

He spent the last few weeks of his life in the ICU, and we were there with him almost every moment. Many of you know what that’s like — the heartbreak of watching someone you love, slowly dying. You know about the fear and the sadness and the pain. You know about the endless days waiting... the hours you can’t keep track of... careening between hope and despair. 

It was awful.

During the weeks my dad was in the hospital and after his death I was blessed to be surrounded by community and friends... but I found it difficult to accept help. People offered meals, but I turned them down. Friends offered to come sit with me, but I turned them down. I wanted to be strong. I wanted to handle it well. I wanted to control an uncontrollable situation. Those closest to me saw through me, and took care of me despite my protests that I was fine, but I put on a brave face for the rest of the world.

Until one friend didn’t let me get away with it. I was politely refusing her offer of dinner when she said to me, “Stop it. I need to do this mitzvah and you won’t let me. You may not need help, but I am asking you to help me do this mitzvah by letting me help you.”
And that was it. Now I had a reason to accept her offer : it was not for me (yeah, right!). I was helping her. It was easy for me to let her help if I reframed it in my mind that way.

What I had trouble admitting to myself — what I only realized once I let her in — was that I really did need her help, that I didn’t even need to pretend to make it through on my own.

In my own grief I had forgotten that there is no way to handle the death of a loved one well. The only way through was to be vulnerable — to admit that I could not do it on my own.

This is not my usual role. Like many of you, I am much more comfortable as a caregiver than as the one being cared for. 

Last year, from this same spot, I spoke with you about the Caring Community and I invited you to help care for others. And you answered the call. The Caring Community  has done so much this year, offering support to so many members of our community, including me. More than two dozen care packages were delivered to grieving families; more than 50 servings of food were prepared and delivered; and more than one hundred cards were sent and two hundred phone calls were made. But they could have done more; we have lots of volunteers waiting and wanting to help. So why, you might ask didn’t the Caring Community do more? The reason is simple; when approached with offers of assistance, most people said, “No thank you, I’m OK, I don’t need anything. I’m fine” 

In talking to other rabbis at other congregations, I’ve found out we’re not alone . Many of my colleagues say that they have a congregation ready and willing to help others... but not as ready to accept help for themselves. 

My first reaction was, frankly, relief: “I’m so glad it’s not just me who has trouble accepting help!” Lots of us refuse help, even when it’s needed. And then I wanted to understand why. Why is it so hard to accept help from others? What is holding us back from letting others help us?

I found part of an answer in the words of Dr. Brene Brown, a shame researcher whose TED talk about vulnerability went viral on the internet. She explains that asking for help means admitting that we are vulnerable — and that we don’t like being seen as vulnerable. We want to be seen as strong, independent and healthy. 

Dr. Brown suggests that when we don’t accept help from others it is because we are judging ourselves. Unless we can receive help with an open heart, we are never really giving help with an open heart. When we refuse help when we need it we are knowingly or unknowingly judging ourselves and judging those we offer to help.1

Most of us would deny attaching judgment to our giving, we want to see ourselves as generous and caring and don’t recognize that we get some measure of self worth from always being the one to offer help and not the one needing it.

Think about that for a moment - while we would all claim never to judge a person who accepts our help, when we refuse to accept ourselves because we think it makes us appear weak or needy is on some level what we think about the people who accept our help. We have to learn to accept help when we need it, that is the only way we can truly help others - freely and without judgement. 

Being vulnerable is about allowing ourselves to be seen — really seen — it’s about revealing our true and authentic selves as they are, not merely as we wish to be seen. When we are vulnerable there is uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. 2 

To be open – to let others see us when we are feeling vulnerable – is hard. It’s hard to drop all pretense. It’s hard to open ourselves up. It’s hard to let others help us. Letting others help me meant I had to let myself be seen as a person who was intensely grieving and that I have to admit how just hard it is to be on this side of loss. 

What makes vulnerability so difficult to face in ourselves? Perhaps it’s that we so often mistake it for weakness, when it is really courage. We take a huge emotional risk when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable. Taking risks, braving uncertainty, and opening ourselves up to emotional exposure is never weakness.3 … but we all know it can feel that way.

Tomorrow in the Haftarah we’re going to read about Hannah — a woman who is not afraid to be vulnerable. We will read about Hannah going to a temple in Shiloh and pouring out her grief to God. And really, she is absolutely and utterly vulnerable in her prayer.
In that holy place she sobs and pours out her grief — and her hopes — to God. She does not recite a standard prayer; she opens her heart and allows herself to be seen by God, to be seen as who she is: a childless woman at a time when a woman’s worth was determined by her offspring, a person who is devastated by the hurtful things another person is saying to her and about her.

She does not hold back.

In fact Hannah is so open with her emotions that the priest, Eli, mistakes her heartfelt prayer for drunkenness. He is quick to judge her, saying, “How long do you propose to carry on drunk like this!” And here’s where Hannah does something somewhat unexpected. She doesn’t apologize or make excuses or run away or hide. Instead she reveals her vulnerability to Eli, saying, “I am a sober woman; I have had neither wine or liquor, but have been pouring out my heart before God. All this time I have been speaking out of my great sorrow and grief.” 

Hannah is courageous in opening herself to emotional exposure, especially after she has already been criticized. Perhaps Eli’s response is one of the things that holds us back in our own prayer. Perhaps we don’t want to be judged the way that Eli judges Hannah, so even in this safe place — even in this sacred space — we hold back; we don’t allow ourselves to be truly vulnerable even in our own personal prayer.

So yes, we struggle with vulnerability. Even here, in this sanctuary. Even now, on this day. 
It is, admittedly, uncomfortable, but it’s not just about wanting to appear strong in front of others. Dr. Brown suggests that vulnerability is closely linked to shame. She defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”4 We all feel it, from time to time. But nobody likes to talk about it or even admit that we have it. 

In your mind, finish the following sentence about yourself by filling in the blank: 
“I’m not [blank] enough.”
We fill in the blank with all kinds of things we are not “enough of.”
Not smart enough.
Not rich enough.
Not nice enough, not tough enough, not caring enough, not successful enough.  not religious enough. Not feminine or masculine enough. Not happy enough, not attractive enough, not thin enough. Not productive or popular or creative enough. Not Jewish enough, not important enough.

That blank your mind filled in, that feeling that we are not enough is where shame comes from - and nobody is immune.5

Our tradition tells us of King David, a pillar of strength: a warrior and ruler. But even in David we find that vulnerability. While he is struggling with Saul for the kingship, David is responsible for his own army. In the manner of military leaders at the time David sends his soldiers to request food and supplies from Nabal, a local nobleman.  Nabal, however, denies the supplies and sends David’s men back to him empty-handed with a message, saying: “Who is David? Who is the son of Jesse? There are many slaves nowadays who run away from their masters. Should I then take my bread and my water, and the meat that I slaughtered for my own shearers, and give them to men who come from I don’t know where?”

Nabal denies David’s request, he denies his kingship, and he compares him to a runaway slave. In doing so Nabal tapped into David’s fear that he was not enough — who was he to be king?Nabal has voiced David’s own fears about himself – that he can’t provide for his men, that he was not really worthy to be king, that he was an impostor. David responds with out-of-control anger and violence, telling his men to ready their swords; David is going to slaughter Nabal and all his men to prove that he is the king - that he is in fact worthy and that he is enough.

It is Abigail who sees through David’s pretense and helps him calm down. She reminds him that he is worthy, and she helps him make a more strategic response — one that helps ensure his future kingship. David recognizes the worth of a woman who can see  him at his most vulnerable — and can help him despite himself, and eventually he marries her.
At first glance one might mistake the willingness of a warrior to go to battle as courage, but that isn’t so. True courage comes when he admits to being vulnerable. David is strongest when he is able to listen to wise council.

Everyone is capable of this kind of courage. Facing up to our fears about not measuring up takes courage. We need this kind of courage at the High Holy Days.

On Rosh Hashanah we can become so focused on what we are supposed to be — all the ways that we did not measure up in the last year, and all the things we want to do better in the new year that we start to feel shame. We start to feel unworthy.

And that’s OK. It’s OK to feel that way, and to be vulnerable. That’s why we’re here.
When we focus on our deeds we need to be open and vulnerable — not to run away, not to fight it off, but to face our fears about ourselves head-on.

Yes, facing our shortcomings hurts, but this is the place to face those hurts and not to let them take over. This is the place to face up to our actions, to admit the things we did that were bad without thinking that we are bad. When we compare who we are against who we want to be, it is uncomfortable, but it can help us see where we need to change. These holy days are not about achieving perfection; they are a time to open ourselves up to the possibility of change, by recognizing and acknowledging where we have fallen short. 
Our challenge for Rosh Hashanah is to recognize all the things we can do better in the new year and still remember that we are worthy of love and belonging — right now, right this minute, just as we are. 6

The shofar is our wake-up call. Don’t wait until you think you are “enough.” 

Don’t wait until you are “fill in the blank” enough.
You’re ready. We’re all ready. That’s why we’re here.
We need to be open and vulnerable in the new year — and while that is scary and leaves us open to pain and uncertainty, it also means that we are open to joy and possibility. We need to be be courageous in the new year.

We need to be vulnerable in our experience of these ten days of repentance; we need to focus on being our real and authentic selves. We need to recognize that we are not perfect and that’s OK, because we are committed to being better. We need to admit admit the things we have done wrong without thinking that something is wrong with us. This is how we change for the better in the new year. When we remember that we are all in God’s image, we know that we are inherently worthy. Worthy of love. Worthy of belonging. Worthy of this holy community. Worthy of blessing.


May we recognize our own strengths. 
May we remember that vulnerability is courage. 
May we have the courage to show up and allow ourselves to be seen by others. 

My prayer for you in the new year is:
Be who you are, and may you be blessed in all that you are.7


 1 Brown, Brene (2010-09-20). The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Suppose to Be and Embrace Who You Are (p. 20). BookMobile. Kindle Edition.
2 Brene Brown, Daring Greatly, p.34
3 Brene Brown, Daring Greatly, p. 37
4 Daring Greatly, p. 69
5 Brene Brown
6 Brown, Brene (2010-09-20). The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Suppose to Be and Embrace Who You Are (pp. 23-24). BookMobile. Kindle Edition.
7 Marcia Falk, “The Book of Blessings”
In researching this sermon I read “The Gifts of Imperfection” and “Daring Greatly” by Dr. Brene Brown.
For a complete list of references and sources please contact me directly.




Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Israel As A History Book

I'm blogging for the URJ this week - check out my post about traveling in Israel with Birthright here:

http://www.reformjudaism.org/blog/2013/09/09/through-time-and-space-visit-historic-jewish-sites

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Death of Miriam Changes Everything


We learn about Miriam’s death in just one short line, all the Torah tells us is that “Miriam died there, and was buried there”; there are no details of how the community mourned her, but it is clear that her loss is felt by the community and by Moses.
The Israelites complaining about conditions in the desert and longing for Egypt is not new. Throughout Numbers the Israelites are quick to complain to Moses and long for the delicacies they had in Egypt. In this case we might excuse their complaints as insecurity. They are grieving and they are uncertain about the future -- what if the well was only there because Miriam merited it? In their sorrow, the community falls back into their old pattern of complaining. They forget about all the other miracles in the desert and myopically only see the current crisis. Grief narrows their vision to only the negative. When Miriam was alive they danced and praised God; after her death they are quarrelsome. 
Moses and Aaron are also changed by grief. At first they respond to the people’s complaints by appealing to God, but when the time comes to bring forth water from the rock Moses loses his temper. Moses calls the people rebels – the Hebrew word is morim, a word that sounds very much like Miriam. Is it possible that Moses was still thinking about his sister this “Freudian slip” is what came out of his mouth instead of the order to the rock? Ora Horn Prouser, in “The Torah: A Women’s Commentary,” suggests that while the Torah does not directly state how Moses is feeling, that his mishandling of the demand for water indicates that he is still struggling with his sister’s death. Prouser goes on to suggest that Moses learns to take the time to grieve because later in Hukat, when Aaron dies, the Torah tells us that “All the house of Israel bewailed Aaron thirty days.”
If Moses did react to the people in anger, out of grief, God’s punishment of denying Moses entry into the promised land seems even more harsh. Moses, who has been shepherding these admittedly difficult people through the desert for 40 years, is denied entrance into the promised land because he hit a rock instead of speaking to it? It is not even unreasonable that he hit the rock; when they first got to the desert God ordered Moses to strike a rock to deliver water to the people. Wouldn’t we expect God to recognize that Moses is grieving and to comfort him instead of punishing him? Perhaps God recognized that grief had so profoundly changed Moses and Aaron that they were no longer capable of leading the people into the promised land. Moses had already begun to do some damage to the people — insulting them and setting a bad example by not following God’s exact instructions. The brutal nature of grief is that it can change us in ways we do not want to be changed.
Hukat begins with a description of the ritual of the Red Heifer, that Water of Lustration that purifies those who come in contact with death, Moses’ reaction to the death of his sister reminds us that sorrow can not be washed away so easily.

Written 2010 for the Board of Rabbi's Weekly Dvar Torah

Monday, June 3, 2013

Packing for Summer Camp



My family and I have been going to Camp Newman for seven summers now, and we have packing down to a science. I’ve got a list of some “must-have” items you’ll want to through in your kids’ bags, but first things first: here’s what you really need to know.

You’re going to forget something, and that’s OK.

Nobody gets everything into the bag, but that’s not a problem. Your kids will be filthy, and they will wish they had brought something they forgot, and they will share clothes... and that is part of the fun. Don’t overpack, and don’t worry about how they’ll manage at camp – they will.

Also: not everything that goes to camp comes home again. One summer one of my kids left her duffel bag at camp; she brought home everything in her laundry bag instead. Don’t send anything to camp that you would be heartbroken if you never see it again. 

Packing: beyond the list.

First, you’ll need a list. Start with the suggestions from camp, and adjust it until it seems right. Our camp’s list never includes a flashlight, but I always send one. Our list also suggests only four pairs of shorts for twelve days; I send six, figuring that my kids are likely to be able to wear the same pair for two days, but not three. I make the same calculation with shirts and pajamas. My kids suggest sending an extra set of pajamas, as one set gets dirty on the overnight.

Once you’ve got your list finished, make multiple copies. I keep a copy at home as a packing checklist and one in my purse so that when I am out shopping I can check to see what I still need to buy.

As you pack, label everything — and I mean everything. My favorite tags are Name Bubbles and Label Daddy, but I also keep a Sharpie next to me while we pack. My kids tease me about putting their names on everything, but I have seen the inside of a cabin halfway through camp — stuff is everywhere; the kids just throw all their stuff together when they are in a hurry to clean up.

Don’t underestimate the importance of zip-top bags. I use them for everything: shampoo in one, sunscreen in another, bug spray in a third. They also hold stationary, pens and friendship bracelet string. I write the kids’ names on the outside of the bags (as well as what’s inside) so they can find their stuff.

Now that you’re organized, here are some suggested essentials.

Here’s my list of ten extras that might not be on the list from your camp, but I’ve found to be good ideas over the years.

1. A bunk organizer
My girls like an organizer to hang from the bunk — there are camp-specific models, but any small hanging organizer works. Sometimes clothespins on hooks work even better.

2. A shower caddy
Last year I sent each of my kids with a mesh carrier for their shower stuff. Once they got to camp they put all their toiletries in the mesh basket so they would dry between uses and would be easy to carry to and from the bathroom.

3. A small backpack or bag.
At Camp Newman the kids go on an overnight in tents, away from the cabin; a small backpack helps them pack for the overnight.

4. Lots of sunscreen.
Seriously – lots. I also send a sunscreen stick to make it easier to put sunscreen on their faces. Kids will share, counselors will remind kids to apply and reapply, but I try to make it as easy as possible for my kids to stay slathered in sunscreen.

5. Closed-toe shoes and flip-flops.
I love Keen toe-protecting sandals; I'm sure they have saved me from a bloody foot on more than one occasion. That being said, I also throw in a pair of cheap flip-flops for the pool or shower or for stepping outside to hang up a towel on the clothesline. They are not an alternative to shoes, but an alternative to bare feet.

6. Pack for planned special events.
If you know they’ve got special themed days or activities, pack accordingly. For instance, “Yom Sport” or “Maccabiah” is what we used to “color wars” — so I make sure they have some red, blue, yellow and green, because you never know what color they will be. It doesn’t have to be a t-shirt; a bandana or a hat will work too. And pack some crazy accessories. As kids get older their groups have more theme nights and activities. Don’t worry if you don’t know what to send; the counselors also bring things to share. (80s night tends to be popular, but as a person who grew up in the 80s I am always surprised at what the kids think we wore; I swear we did not look that bad.)

7. Cabin fun.
Those $1 glow bracelet packs are fun to bring to share with the cabin. And a plain pillowcase works great as an autograph memento at the end of the session. Send some colored Sharpies to go with it and everyone in the cabin can sign.

8. A bedsheet.
I send a fitted sheet to go on the mattress under the sleeping bag. No particular reason; it is just a nice little touch of home.

9. A laundry bag.
Even though my kids are not at camp long enough to have their laundry done, I still send a laundry bag so they can throw in stuff that is too dirty to wear again. If your kid will be there long enough to have laundry done, use a canvas or nylon bag so the clean clothes stay clean.

10. Pre-addressed and stamped envelopes.
If you want your kid to write, make it easy. Great-grandparents, grandparents, auntie and best friends... anyone they want to send a letter to. If they’ve got a stamped, addressed envelope they’re more likely to write a letter.

On the flip side: don’t send this stuff.

Do not try to sneak in electronics or cell phones. Camp is a chance to unplug. Your kids are perfectly fine at camp and they are learning independence, and that means not being able to call mom and dad. Read more about why you should leave the cell phone at home here and here.While we are at it, don’t try to sneak in food either; there is always plenty of food at camp, and food in cabins attracts bugs.

Want more tips? Check out these links:
Packing for Camp



Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Stop Complaining: Dvar Torah on Be'ha'alotekha


The desert is not a happy place for the Israelites. We spend much of the Torah repeating the same story over and over again: the people sin, God punishes them, the people ask Moses to make it stop, Moses prays, the punishment ends, and wherever they are gets named after the events that happened there. It happens over and over and still the Israelites never learn from it.

Three verses that appear in our Torah portion are a story in and of itself:

The people took to complaining bitterly before God. God heard and was incensed: a fire of God broke out against them, ravaging the outskirts of the camp. The people cried out to Moses. Moses prayed to God, and the fire died down. That place was named Taberah, because a fire of God had broken out against them.

How can we understand these three verses? This short piece is a complete story in and of itself. What can we learn from it. We all know that it is not good to complain, there must be something else here that we can learn. The Torah does not tell us what they were complaining about, it is up to us to interpret the text and determine why they are complaining. 

Our sages read these three verses and understood them in different ways.

Rashbam assumed that the people were complaining because of the journey. The preceding verses mention that the people had been marching for 3 days after leaving Sinai. For him, the context was simple, after 3 days of walking in the desert the people began to whine. 

Rashi thought something similar, that the people were murmuring to themselves, and not so quietly “woe is us, three days on the move without a moments rest from the hardships of the trip” and that God is angry because of course God was moving them quickly, Rashi imagines that God responds “I meant it as a favor to you - so you could enter the promised land as soon as possible”

Ibn Ezra understood that the sin was complaining itself. He looks carefully at the word choices and says that the word used to describe the complaining is mitonenim, which he says is related to aven, to transgress. What they are complaining about is not clear, so it must be the complaining itself that God objects to. 

And then Nachmanides thinks something else altogether. First he openly disagrees with Ibn Ezra, a reminder to us all that Reform Judaism is part of a legacy of Jewish discussion about what the text really means.
Nachmanides tells us that Ibn Ezra is wrong, that is complaining is a sin the text would tell us, just like it does in other places.

Nachmanides thought that once the Israelites left Mount Sinai, which was relatively close to a settled area and moved into the heart of the wilderness of the Sinai they began to feel sorry for themselves. “What are we going to do? How will we live in his wilderness? What will we eat? What will we drink? How can we stand this toil, this torment? When will we get out of here?”
He says that the word mitonenim is instead related to ben-oni, Rachel’s original name for Benjamin which is an expression of pain and feeling sorry for yourself. He says they were “like” people who were complaining, they spoke out of desperation, as those suffering from pain do. 

Abrabanel says that the key is “like” c’mitonanim, that they were not legitimately complaining, they did not believe their complaints, they were just testing God.

There are so many ways that our sages understand these three simple verses, but it is clear that complaining, is not a good thing. We know that, in looking for wisdom from the Torah, we already know that whining is bad - so there must be more that we can learn from these verses. 

These three verses describe the what the Israelites experience in the the desert  over and over again after receiving the commandments. After this short description, the Torah goes on to detail another incident of complaint and divine punishment, this time filling in all the blanks. 

This time the people are complaining about the food, they are sick of mannah and they want meat.

By this time both Moses and God are fed up. When the people complain to Moses that they want meat, Moses then complains to God that he would rather be dead than to deal with the Israelites any longer. That toxic whining drives Moses not only to not be their leader anymore, but in a fit of drama makes him not want to live any longer. 

And God responds as a frustrated parent would, telling the people that if they want meat they will get so much meat that it will be coming out their noses. 

Now everyone is miserable, the Israelites, Moses and God. And why? Our sages are careful to remind us that the mana was not so bad, that it was like Marry Poppins cough syrup, tasting like whatever you want it to taste like. This makes them wonder about the true source of the complaint asking for meat and longing for the vegetables of Egypt. The Israelites seem ungrateful, unable to recognize the miracle of mana in the desert, unable to appreciate food that is provided that they do not need to work for, unable to celebrate their freedom from slavery because they are so focused on what they do not have. 

We all know people like this. People whose constant complaints make us want to get as far away as possible. We have all been like this at one time or another, either feeling sorry for ourselves or just so frustrated with what we perceive around us that we are the ones complaining, that we are the ones unable to experience gratitude for all that is going well.

Knowing it is a problem and doing something about it are two very different things. Our text makes it clear, over and over again that it is a hard lesson to learn, and that knowing we should stop complaining and actually stopping are two different things. 

Judaism is really all about cultivating our sense of gratitude and wonder at the world. One could say that taking the time to stop and appreciate the Shabbat kiddush wine is a cure for whining, but it goes much deeper than that.

Our prayers encourage us to develop a sends of gratitude, to recognize and appreciate what is good in life. But even beyond that the title of our Torah portion can help guide us.

This weeks portion is called Be’ha’alotekha, which means when you step up, it is connected to the root, aliyah, to go up. We are told Be’ha’alotekha et hanerot - when you step up to light the lights. We all have an opportunity to light the lights, to step up and make the world a brighter place. We can choose to wallow in complaining or we can choose to step up and light the lights - to light the lights of gratitude and joy - and to spread that light to others. When we embrace the light and pass the flame onto others we can fill the darkness with love and gratitude and be a blessing to each other. 



Sunday, March 10, 2013

Getting Ready for Pesach


How many of you have ever forgotten a birthday or an anniversary? 

There’s an app for that.

Most phones these days will remember your loved ones’ birthdays and anniversaries and remind you to say happy birthday. You can even ask for a reminder a week in advance, giving yourself time to write a card or buy a gift.

This Shabbat, Shabbat HaHodesh, is the equivalent of that email reminding you that you have a meeting.

FYI: the meeting is in two weeks, and you’ll need plenty of apples, nuts and wine.

Yes, Shabbat HaHodesh reminds us that we need to get ready for Pesach, but as Reform Jews we may not be as concerned with the Pesach halacha – the laws surrounding Pesach – as we should be about other things.

Most of us are not getting out the second set of dishes and kashering the oven. Instead, we begin a different type of preparation. Well, we do IF we get the reminder. And since tonight is the start of the month of Nisan, the alarm has just gone off.

That is not to say that we are not also cleaning out our cabinets and looking for the best deal on matzah, but I am suggesting that we take this announcement of the new month as a reminder that we need to prepare – a reminder that Pesach is only two weeks away.

But what, then, does Pesach remind us of? When we retell the Pesach story we are reminded that we truly became a people only after we were freed from slavery. The collective memory of that slavery inspires us to work for freedom of people everywhere. We have two more weeks to get ready to retell our story so that when we reenact our liberation from Egypt, we can honestly say that we are working toward freedom for everyone, everywhere. So that when you sit down at your seder in two weeks you will be actively working towards freedom.

And while we may not be forced to labor on cities in Ancient Egypt, there are many ways that we seek freedom from slavery.

There is personal enslavement. We can spend the next two weeks reflecting on the things that enslave us: bad habits that make us slaves to our weaknesses, electronic devices that enslave us to our work and email even when we truly need the rest, stagnation that enslaves us to our fears, holding us back from meaningful change.

We have two weeks to begin to make those changes, the small steps that we can take toward personal freedom from habits and fear that hinder our own journey. Moses chose to feel enslaved by his speech impediment, but God insisted that he speak to Pharaoh and the Jewish people anyway. How often do we make ourselves slaves to self doubt and negativity? 

Shabbat HaHodesh reminds us that we have yet another chance to start over, to begin to make the changes we want in our lives — so that we are on our way to a more personal sense of freedom on Pesach.

But we can also take real and meaningful steps to end slavery for others. In this country there are people enslaved by poverty. There are families enslaved by hunger and overwhelming medical bills. People enslaved by illness. 

We can take positive action. We can begin to take steps to lead others to freedom. While we are shopping for our Pesach foods we can fill a grocery bag for SOVA or another food bank. We can make a donation to Mazon, knowing that we can’t really invite all of the wandering and hungry to our dinner table, but we can make a donation to organizations that are able to.

There are people enslaved by relationships that are fraught with domestic violence. This year our TAS High students took steps toward ending domestic violence in teen relationships by creating a Facebook page for other teenagers directing them to resources about domestic violence. By creating a safe space specifically for teenagers –  created by teenagers – they have helped lead others to freedom from violent relationships.

Women in the Sudan and Congo are slaves to terror, unable to collect firewood or clean water without fear of violence. Jewish World Watch has taken the mission to bring freedom to people from all over the world. It is a slow process, one only has to read the news to see how many people live in constant fear for their lives, people who are not free to live their lives and raise their children in peace, and yet, Jewish World Watch reminds us that we are not free to ignore the problem just because it is too big to solve easily. Ending slavery worldwide is huge; the scope of human suffering is almost to large to comprehend and it would be easy to not do anything at all because each one of us can only make a small impact. The story of the Exodus reminds us that together we are powerful, and that each small part that we do together adds up to real and visible change. 

Our synagogue helps support the work of Jewish World Watch when we participate in the Los Angeles Jewish World Watch Walk in April. Shabbat Hahodesh reminds us that Pesach is coming and that we need to get ready. Now is the time to sign up with the TAS team and to commit to supporting the work of Jewish World Watch, the kind of work that brings solar cookers to women so they are free to cook for their families, the kind of work that genuinely makes a difference one person at a time and the kind of work that we you can participate in even from here, so that at your seder you will know that you are not just remembering what it is like to be a slave, you are actively working to end slavery. 

We all have moments that define our lives, where our lives split into before and after.
And we tell our stories over and over. We tell the stories of the things and people that shape us. We tell the stories of how we met our best friends, we tell the story of our wedding day, we tell the story of when our children were born, we tell the stories of the trips that changed our perspective on the world and we tell the stories about how we handle tragedy, we tell the stories of battling cancer, of finding our way after a loss, of changing jobs unexpectedly and of coming to terms with a difficult diagnosis. We tell the stories of the moments that change us. 

We don’t just tell the stories — we also relive certain stories, drive by places that matter, revisit where we were when events happened: that’s where we spent our first date, it used to be a Casa de Burger — some stories are so important that we reenact them every year, much like how a couple will reenact their first date, going back to eat at the same restaurant on an anniversary or return to their honeymoon spot on a trip.

For us, the collective us, the Jewish people, that moment is the Exodus, the story we tell over and over at Pesach. 

Shabbat Hahodesh is the reminder that the anniversary of our birth as a people is coming soon and we need to get ready. Yes, we need to get our homes and kitchens ready, but we also need to get our souls ready, we need to start now to free ourselves from the things that enslave us and we need to start now to work on the things that enslave all people so that when we sit down at our seders and say “I once was a slave in Egypt”  that it is not just reenacting a story, but that we are currently acting to bring freedom to everyone.

We join together to announce the new month, to remind ourselves and each other that it is time to prepare.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Eulogy for my father


When I was about seven years old we were walking back to the Sea Gypsy in Pismo on a little side street. I was balancing on the edge of a tall curb as we were walking and I lost my balance. I remember starting to fall and putting my hands out and bracing myself for skinned hands and knees but I never hit the ground. Instead of falling down I was lifted up in the air and I was so startled that I started to cry. My dad had caught me, mid-fall. He had reached down and caught me right out of the air before I hit the ground. I always thought my dad was like Superman; whenever he could he would catch me and stop me from falling. Around my dad, I always felt safe and protected and loved.  

My dad believed that every day was a gift – he lived his life like every day was a blessing. While he was serving in Vietnam he was shot, and though we all laughed about how he lost a butt cheek in the war, the reality was that he was very lucky to be alive. He was laying on his stomach and the bullet grazed all the way down his back; if the bullet had been just a half an inch over it would have gone through his head and he would have died.  

My dad celebrated the day he was shot as “life day” and he lived as if each day was a bonus. He would sing in the mornings when he woke up. He enjoyed life and he taught me how to appreciate the small things: a sunrise drive when we were the only two awake, a cold Pepsi – which always tasted better out of his cup, getting up early in the morning for hot cinnamon rolls, that anything tastes better cooked over an open flame, that hiking is good exercise, but you learn more on a ranger program, and that everything is better at the beach. He taught me to appreciate British humor and could recite almost every line Chevy Chase said in “Vacation,” and he had just about the best laugh. I used to call him to share something funny just to hear him laugh so hard he started to wheeze; my dad's laughter could shake anyone out of a bad mood.  

Ten years ago, after learning that he had cancer, he told me that he always thought the years since he was shot were a bonus, and that he thought the reason he had all those years was so that he could have me and my sister and my girls. We had ten more years together, and he got to know all my daughters but it was not enough time.  Despite his tendency toward being overprotective, my dad taught me not to be afraid. He taught me to embrace life and travel and try new things. He taught me that “Full Metal Jacket” has the most authentic boot camp scene of any movie, but he was not as thrilled that I picked up the vocabulary. He taught me that education is important and pushed me to do my best. He taught me about honesty and integrity and that it is better to do the right thing than the easy thing. He taught me that it is important to love what you do so it never feels like work.  

My dad was a fantastic story teller. We would sit around the campfire and he would tell us stories about the pranks he pulled when growing up, his time in the Marines, and family stories about when my sister and I were little. I could listen to my dad for hours, and even if he was telling the same story again he could still make you laugh.   

My dad always encouraged me to try my best; he taught me to have high expectations and he thought I could do anything, he made me believe that I could do anything I set my mind to. I always thought he could do anything — my dad was a Marine; he was tough and could handle whatever life threw at him and usually came out on top. And he taught me that I could handle it too. I still can't believe he’s gone.   

Whenever I am been back in Pismo I still point out the scene of my rescue. I still remember that feeling of amazement that my dad saved me, but even now, I am still not surprised, because that was who my dad was; encouraging me to run ahead but ready to catch me if I fell.