Wednesday, April 19, 2017

MY LOUSY SHOPPING-FOR-A-DRESS EXPERIENCE



The other day I went shopping for a dress. Not to worry—it wasn’t for me. Actually, it wasn’t for anybody. I just decided to get on the Internet and google “Bat Mitzvah dress” to see what fashions are being touted these days. I knew I had landed an authentic site when minimizing each close-up of a model, the screen flashed me a “L’chayim!”
One of the last people on earth who should be writing about fashion is me. This may be one of those subliminal, oppositional responses to my father who was a custom tailor men’s clothing designer (in his language—a cutter), or just a personal distaste for shopping. If I need a couple more shirts or a new pair of pants, I head for Sears, and if I don’t find anything there, my safety store is Costco. Iris Apfel, had she the power, would have me arrested for crimes against clothing. Nonetheless, I do think about clothes because Jewish tradition does, and believe it or not, the Torah has what to say about it.
For example, the Torah is concerned about materials, and forbids the combination of wool and linen, known as sha'atnez (pronounced: sha-at-NEZ; see Deuteronomy 22:11). In another example, the Torah instructs us to place tzitzit, fringes, on the four corners of our garments in order to “look at [them] and recall all the commandments of the Lord” (Numbers 15:39). And in the Talmud, we read: “Rav Huna bareh d’Rav Yehoshua wouldn’t walk four amot (literally “cubits,” a cubit approximating about 16 inches) with an uncovered head. He said: the Divine Presence is above my head” (Kiddushin 31a). His custom evolved into the widely-observed tradition of kippah or head covering which we wear during prayer, study, and meals (since prayers are recited at that time).
Dress at synagogue on holy days has become increasingly casual. This is a national trend not only in synagogues but in churches as well. I welcome the change because over the years, many women (and some men) have complained about the burden of having to dress up on a Shabbat, and how if they didn’t have to, they would be more likely to attend services. I know that some might question the sincerity of that complaint, but any barrier to attendance that can be reasonably lifted is worth the risk. Still, that should not be a license to dress thoughtlessly or carelessly. Given the trend toward greater informality in synagogue-wear, what values should our dress convey?
The rabbis speak often of tzeni’ut or modesty in how we behave and how we dress. Tzeni’ut is the value observed by people conscious of living within a divine matrix, in which every point in space is in some way a God point, and every point of our body is, in kind, a connection with God. Modest dress would be simple and unflashy. Tzeni’ut fashion would be dress that covers the body more than it reveals, but not necessarily hiding the body as shameful. There is nothing shameful about our bodies, but within Jewish spiritual consciousness, the holy is always covered. Like a Torah in the ark, or the hallah before the hamotzi blessing, our bodies are not for public display.
Back to my own internet shopping spree, here are a few descriptions of Bat Mitzvah dresses that I came across which are “suitable,” for the big day:

The sultry strapless bodis has a chic sweetheart neckline and is cinched at the waist (Terani)
…this beautiful ensemble drapes to the decadent mid-thigh hem (Rachel Allan)
The seam-sculpted bodice boasts halter styling that shows off your shoulders (Ellie Wilde)
Sweet and sassy, this darling cocktail dress… (Mac Duggal)

The models displaying the various dresses looked far less prepared for praying than they were for clubbing, and none of them looked like thirteen-year-olds.

As I was “shopping,” I was trying to reconcile what was being passed off as legitimate feminine fashion with decades of feminists railing against the objectification of women. What exactly were these revealing, flashy, sexy, “synagogue-friendly” fashions conveying? Was it—
It’s my body and I have the right to show it off, however I want to show it?
I am on the cusp of sexual maturity and I can now declare the lure of my biology?
I remain, as I have been for centuries, a sexualized object, and I willingly embrace that status, no matter how demoralizing it may be?
In all honesty, my shopping spree didn’t last that long, and I did come across sites that offered more modest fare. That’s the good news. Even better is the fact that in our congregation, the people who tend to the modest and unflashy predominate. But there are those Shabbatot when the violations of all good taste are on display, particularly at B’nei Mitzvah ceremonies.
It is said that at the age of 13, our children become adults. And I say—What were the rabbis thinking! The truth is we adults transfer very few responsibilities to B’nei Mitzvah precisely because we know they are not ready. We are not going to give them the right to vote, a license to drive a car, or permission to drink liquor. As parents and grandparents, I hope that we don’t let the sexy and sassy fashion designers or marketers turn them into sexual objects at a time when they are still working through healthy approaches to body image and their own sexuality. Exactly when would be the right time for that anyway? Mommies and Daddies have a very powerful word to keep their children, particularly their daughters, from provocative dress. The word is “No.” It’s not a dirty word and if used, children will not hate parents even as they throw a tantrum for their parents having had the hutzpah to exercise a little parental authority. The tantrum is all about their fear of being unable to withstand the peer pressure to dress as provocatively as their friends. But actually, they do have the inner strength to withstand that pressure. And parents are in a perfect position to help their children discover that strength. Now that’s a fabulous message to pass onto a young person standing on the threshold of maturity!
I’m no fashion maven and as Sears moves closer to bankruptcy, I’m beginning to angst over where to shop in the future. And now I know the Internet will be no substitute. But I do worry about a world in which wardrobe chic is developed by people whose values are antithetical to those of the Torah, and I suspect, feminism as well. It’s time to give a little more thought to how our families dress for synagogue. We owe it to our daughters and sons: when we walk into the synagogue, we should walk in a Jewish way, and not on the runway.

Monday, April 10, 2017

A REFLECTION ON THE FOUR SONS



In the following reflection, the bold print represents the traditional words of the Haggadah,
whereas the plain print represents some responses by Rabbi Rank

The Torah refers to four sons:
Not really.  No where do “four sons” appear in the Torah, but the rabbis of old use the paradigm of four to teach us ways of responding to the different kinds of people who may be seated at our seder table.  That’s not a bad idea—one response does not fit all, and we should know how to respond to different people given their particular temperament.  So let’s begin by acknowledging the multiple differences among the Jewish people and the fact that about 50% of them are daughters (i.e., not sons). 

One wise, one wicked, one simple and one who does not know how to ask a question.
If only it were that easy to categorize people.  Let’s make no assumptions about who anyone is.  There’s a little bit of wisdom, wickedness, simplicity and cluelessness in us all.

What does the wise son say?
The translation ought to read, “What does the wise one ask?”

"What are the testimonials, statutes and laws Hashem our God commanded you?"
That’s not what the wise ones ask anymore.  Today the wise ones ask—If there is no evidence of the Israelites being in Egypt beyond the testimony of the Torah itself, why is this story worthy of so central a position in the consciousness of the Jewish people?

You should tell him about the laws of Pesah, that one may eat no dessert after eating the Pesah offering.
Actually, no—that answer is not going to work at all.  The answer to the wise one’s question is this.  It’s a challenging question because on the surface, it alleges Judaism to be based on a lie—which would not be a great thing.  Two responses:  1) the absence of evidence does not mean that the history of the exodus never took place, only that it cannot be verified; 2) but let’s assume the exodus did not take place.  If so, another question would be in order.  What does it say about the character of the Jewish people to have fabricated as its foundational myth a story about redemption and faith?  This is not a story about victory in war or the amassing of wealth, superior intelligence, or some other triumphalist myth.  Rather it is a story of an impoverished and oppressed people with little hope in the future, leaving the certainty of a miserable existence for an uncertain future based solely on their faith in God.  Gutsy—no?  That says a lot about our ancestors and the risks they were willing to take in life to improve their lot.

What does the wicked son say?
Before the question is asked, already this individual is judged.  Let everyone ask the questions they need to ask on a night when questioning itself is evidence of freedom.
"What does this drudgery mean to you?"
Wow—what a loaded translation.  The literal translation of the question is “What does this service mean to you?” and there’s nothing wrong with that question.  Perhaps it is framed as a wicked question only because it is so difficult to answer.  The Haggadah states that “In every generation, it is incumbent upon us to see ourselves as having left Egypt.”  So when this question is asked, it penetrates, because it demands that we actually talk about exodus and freedom from the heart, not the head.  How often we find ourselves in Mitzrayim—a place of plague, darkness, and death.  Will we remain trapped or find a way out? Tonight is the night we need never feel trapped by the Mitzrayims of personal circumstance.  Our faith has shown us a way to exit the place of darkness, but it will be a move not without risks or dangers. 
To you and not to him.
But this is the question—What does this service mean to YOU?  If he knew what it meant to HIM, he may not be so curious as to know what it meant to YOU.  The possibility exists that he knows full well what this service means to HIM, and now he wishes to know in what way his meaning compares or contrasts with yours. 
Since he excludes himself from the community, he has denied a basic principle of Judaism.
Anyone seated at your seder table has not excluded themselves from the community.  Sitting at the seder table is an affirmation of being part of the community and all who are hungry (for knowledge maybe?) are welcome to come and eat (i.e., ponder the mystery and mythology of Jewish peoplehood).
You should blunt his teeth…
No, no—not after thousands of dollars of orthodonture!!  But in all seriousness, anyone whose intent in answering a question begins with an attempt to put down the questioner is a person who has no idea how to answer a question.
…by saying to him: "It is for the sake of this that Hashem did for me when I left Egypt.
This is almost a real answer.  We do the matzah and the marror and the reclining and the karpas as a way of solidifying our lives with fellow Jews across nations and across continents, across generations both past and future, to be part of a Jewish fabric that professes a Power greater than us and a will to forever evolve toward deeper and deeper levels of freedom.
For me and not for him. If he was there he would not have been redeemed."
Actually, according to a Midrash, only a fifth, 20% of all the Jews in Egypt actually left.  The move to freedom with all the uncertainty such a move entails is not a popular choice.  Choosing the sacred is not and never has been a popular choice.
What does the simple son say?
Whether a question is simple of complicated, all questions deserve our attention.
"What's this?"
I wish we knew what the “this” referred to.  Maybe the answer is “What’s what?  What are you referring to specifically?”  This is a very general question and in order to answer it, we may need to inquire as to the specifics of the query.
You should say to him "With a strong hand Hashem took me out of Egypt, from the house of servitude."
If you can tell a tale of personal redemption, you have become an example for others to emulate.  When Henry would tell the story of his survival in Auschwitz, and how he emerged from the Hell of a Death Camp to become a successful architect, a loving husband and father, a connected Jew, his tale was worth more than 100 readings of the Haggadah.  But his tale also pointed to the deeper truth of the Haggadah, that redemption is real.  Redemption is possible.
And the one who does not know how to ask, you start for him, as the Torah says: "And you should tell your son on that day, saying 'It is for the sake of this that Hashem did for me when I left Egypt.'"
To the ones who do not know how to ask, we should remind them that to ask is a sacred action.  And never be afraid to ask for only through inquiry, curiosity and questioning do we learn, and only through learning and knowledge and wisdom, do we attain freedom.


Tuesday, March 14, 2017

PLEASE DON’T USE THE F-WORD IN THE EULOGY


When I started out in the rabbi business over 35 years ago, it was rare that any family or friend of the deceased would rise before the gathered and give a eulogy.  Eulogies were left to the professionals and personal reminiscences found their expression during the shivah.  There has been a dramatic change in that paradigm, as anyone who has been to a funeral recently can attest.  Both family and friends take to the podium for some good words, which is precisely what eulogy means, “eu” from the Greek meaning well and “logia” from the Greek meaning speaking.

This protocol shift is probably due to a confluence of changes.  The clergy, in general, have not been living up to their holiness standards, as the media has exposed—as well they should—a host of disillusioning scandals.  The growth in a more casual approach to ritual has diminished the need for clergy at all.  And finally, there is the fact that sometimes clergy just underperformed in the eulogy department, speaking at length philosophically, and perhaps poetically, with little having to do with the deceased.  Or speaking of the deceased at length—but not necessarily the one that was being buried.  A good friend of the family could easily walk away from a funeral with the question—“Who was that rabbi describing anyway?  Not the character I knew…”  And so we have what we have today, lay eulogies in abundance.

When I arrange a funeral, I typically meet with family a day or two before, both to serve as a basis of the eulogy I hope to write, but even more importantly, for the family to remember and reminisce.  It really is very therapeutic.  I begin by asking if anyone from the family would like to speak and nine times out of ten, some of them do.  I will never give a eulogy prior to the family speakers (though once a family demanded that I do) as I’d rather the family say what they need to say without the rabbi doing it for them.  In the final analysis, I have heard some outstanding eulogies penned by personal friends and family of the deceased.  And then there is the occasional disaster.  So again, having had a certain degree of experience in the field, I present the following recommendations for your consideration.  I realize that there is a certain degree of danger in trying to reign in a family’s need for expression at such an emotionally-laden time.  And there is even a tradition that would have rabbis rule as leniently as possibly during a time of sorrow—a sense that whatever is going to bring solace to the family should be permitted even when not 100% within kosher boundaries.  I get all that.  But again, you be the judge regarding the following:

1)      Please do not ask, on the spot, if there is anyone who would like to say a few words about the deceased.  This may work when only a few people are in attendance, but at a large gathering, it opens the possibility of Uncle Sid coming to the podium, unprepared, and beginning to ramble for the next 15 minutes about well…who knows?  It’s Uncle Sid and sometimes he’s on task and sometimes he’s on a flask and you just never know what’s going to come out of his mouth.  Before the first words are spoken at the funeral, there should be a general consensus by the family as to who will be called to speak.

2)      Try to have whatever it is you want to say written down.  In other words, come prepared.  Public speaking may look easy, but it can be very intimidating.  People typically think what they have to say is far briefer than the time it actually takes to say it.  It’s that old quip, attributed to many though true nonetheless, that the people who speak for over an hour do so because they didn’t have enough time to write a shorter speech.  Brevity is beauty and the one who can speak succinctly will hold the attention of the listeners best. 

3)      If you know yourself to be an emotional person, and the possibility exists that you will dissolve into tears mid-eulogy, it’s a good idea to have a back-up speaker who can take over and finish the good words you have prepared.  Watching a person weep in public is heart-wrenching, and trying to hear the words of a person who is sobbing through a eulogy is virtually impossible.  Have your pinch-hitter waiting in the wings.

4)      Granted, it’s no easy task limiting the number of speakers to speak, but the fact is listening to ten speakers speak can be a burden.  It is especially so when the first four speakers have now said about everything that ought to be said at the funeral, the remaining six simply repeating with little variation what already has been said.  You can tell when an audience has reached their eulogy limit when the majority of the chapel consists of people whose heads are bowed low, mostly because they are checking their email.

5)      A great eulogy is one in which the truth is told with dignity.  This is the reason why some funerals will present a greater challenge than others because the truth about a person’s life is not necessarily a story of dignity or integrity.  A eulogy can be colorful and even humorous, under the right conditions, but it shouldn’t be ribald or vulgar.  No one needs a listing of the deceased’s favorite strip clubs, or how he relieved himself the night that he and the speaker were totally smashed.  There’s a place for those stories, and the funeral is not the place.

6)      Finally, and this has got to be my favorite recommendation of all those given, please don’t use the F-word in the eulogy.  There are a number of other words that ought to be avoided but I suspect you catch my drift.  I once sat through a eulogy where the speaker said the F-word eight times (I counted)The first time, people laughed.  The second time, not so much.  Every time thereafter, it was just irritating.  As an addendum, people sometimes feel compelled to apologize to the seated clergy before they actually curse.  I’m not exactly certain why this happens.  Either the apology renders the curse kosher, a sort of soaking and salting of the curse before consumption, or maybe there’s a concern that if a curse enters the rabbi’s virgin ears, his or her head will explode.  I hereby disabuse you of that illusion.  I have personally heard many a curse and so far, my head is intact.  My hair isn’t, but  not due to any profanity, as far as I can tell.


There you have it: six recommendations to help the lay person navigate the emotional waters of speaking well of the dead.  When a child speaks of a parent or a devoted nephew or niece of their loved one, it can be a beautiful moment.  I’ve witnessed those moments.  But we do need some ground rules going forward.  One last recommendation.  You may need to consult this piece at some time in the future.  Cut it out of this paper.  File it, and may you never have to use it for at least 120 years.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

SOME RANDOM TWEETS / SOME JEWISH TWEETS


What role does clergy play in Mr. Trump’s America?  To raise hard questions, challenge the pols, and keep the flame of faith burning.

Which was the greater Democratic liability—a flawed candidate or the over-confidence of: we’re right and can’t lose?

Media is inherently biased because people, who make the media, are inherently biased.  That’s why freedom of all presses is essential.

Is it a genuine victory if the final total includes a substantial number that are not votes for you, but votes against the other candidate?

The day after the election was marked by silence and shock.  I tweet it only because I never want to forget it; it was eerie and unsettling.

Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose.  Sometimes the president is brilliant and sometimes not so much.  That’s called democracy.

The election of 2016 exposed the “sensitive” and liberal Northeast to be oblivious to its neighbors in the Midwest.  Not nice and not smart.

The right wing is plagued by neo-nazi, white supremacists; the left wing by BDSers and atheistic bullies.  Jews need their own new party.

Mr. Trump is not ideologically committed which may be an advantage.  Ideology often keeps us from out-of-the-box solutions that could work.

Moving the US embassy to Jerusalem may create a Palestinian incentive to negotiate, if they fear it is the first of more losses to come. 

Could Mr. Obama have been more gracious to Mr. Trump in creating a peaceful transition and welcome to the White House?  I think not.

Give Mr. Trump a chance to succeed?  Absolutely!  His success is our success.  Only a fool prays for personal failure.

Whether attended by a multitude or not, the Inauguration was a triumph in representing the peaceful transition of power.

God grants length of years, great wealth, and communal honor to the purveyors of fake news.  Uhm, just kidding…

Ivanka and Jared got Orthodox dispensation to ride during the Shabbat inauguration.  You see—us Conservative Jews were right all along!!

Mr. Trump and Bibi are on good terms.  That is a very welcomed change.  Maybe our allies will begin to think of America as an ally again.

Jared Kushner from New Jersey, special envoy to the Middle East, will bring peace.  Also, I have a bridge in Brooklyn I’d like to sell you.

His followers are not deplorable, but in referencing “American carnage,” depicting an America the equal of a Warsaw ghetto, his language is.

Mr. Trump’s harping on a dystopian America makes him sound like a religious crackpot.  Recommendation:  a new set of speech writers.

For those who despair a Trump presidency, remember that the system is stronger than the man and only diamonds, not presidents, are forever.

I hope the president has thoughts that exceed 140 characters in length.











Tuesday, January 31, 2017

IT AIN’T EASY BEING A JEWISH LIBERAL


Being Jewish and being politically liberal almost go hand-in-hand. On average, 75% of Jewish voters have gone Democrat since 1928. That’s higher than any other distinct ethnic grouping. Judge Jonah J. Goldstein (1886-1967), the 1945 Jewish Republican candidate for Mayor of New York City, once quipped, “The Jews have three veltn (worlds): di velt (this world), yenne velt (the next world) and Roosevelt.”

The beginnings of Jewish liberalism can be traced back to a brainy, humble, and influential Sefardic philosopher by the name of Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677). Spinoza is sometimes referred to, not inaccurately, as the father of modern Judaism. He was certainly a champion of freedom of thought, freedom of worship, and freedom itself, the value above which there could be no other. He rejected the idea of Jews as the chosen people, or that the Torah was authored by God, or that the prophets were any more than powerful men with deep insights, sometimes correct and at other times wrong. So much of what he believed in, we as liberal Jews, embrace without question. But in 1656, the Talmud Torah Congregation of Amsterdam excommunicated him, forbidding anyone to speak with him, associate with him or help him in anyway. He was ostracized by the Jewish community and in spite of many attempts to lift that ban since, it never was.

Being influential and being right are not the same. Spinoza influenced us for better or worse, and within the “worse category” is the idea that Jews are no better than anyone else. Granted, some among us have used this doctrine as proof of our superiority—intellectually, socially, etc.,—a shallow rendering of an otherwise healthy concept. Chosen-ness is not superiority over others, but is mission among others. We have a mission, dictated some might say by God, to pursue justice and fill an otherwise cruel world with compassion. Denying Jews their chosen-ness is mean-spirited. It is akin to telling proud Americans that their pride is mere arrogance. It’s like telling a child—You’re not special; you have no unique talents. The only one who benefits from lines like those are the psychiatrists who will be earning thousands off your offspring’s future therapy.

Today Jewish liberals pursue a host of causes: advancing the rights of African-Americans, homosexuals, the LGBT community, women, the elderly, the disabled, etc. But if you look closely, another afflicted demographic draws the attention of liberals—Palestinians, who apparently are choking within the stranglehold of Israel. The intermingling of the Palestinian issue with the others caught my attention one day when an impromptu Minneapolis Black Lives Matter demonstration was televised on CNN. Among the signs prominently displayed at the gathering was “Free Palestine.” Free Palestine? What did that have to do with the unarmed black man that a police officer had shot and killed? But such is the new philosophy of the Left: all the oppressed, wherever they are, whatever the cause, must unite for they fight a common enemy—the wealthy and the empowered. Wealth and power are virtually always synonymous with oppressors and despots. The one with authority is the enemy. Of course the Palestinian cause must be championed. Israel is wealthy and empowered, ergo, the enemy. The blithe logic of this equation is so off-base, it is amazing that anyone would fall for it. But Jews do.

Michael Lerner, an American political activist and editor of Tikkun magazine, has long been an exponent of the Left, and in particular, the American Jewish Left. Following the death of Elie Wiesel, he wrote a scandalous piece about Wiesel—a Jewish saint if ever there was one!— in which he exposed the true sine qua non of the Jewish left:

Indeed, Wiesel, though receiving universal fame and honors was no prophet nor someone who really understood the Jewish prophetic tradition. A prophet doesn’t only challenge the errors of other peoples, s/he challenges the distortions and faults of their own people or nation. Wiesel was largely silent about the War in Vietnam, and more importantly, the oppression of the Palestinian people. (The bold print is the publication’s, not mine; Tikkun, A Variety of Perspectives on Elie Wiesel, July 4, 2016)

According to Lerner, the true “prophet” must take on “the distortions and faults of their own people and nation.” What Lerner is really saying here is self-promotional. He is identifying himself as the great prophet of this generation for he, more than anyone else, has earned his reputation by slamming the Jewish American establishment and Israel in particular. It’s his way of saying my credentials are impeccable because I can oppose my own people. Lerner thinks he is being courageous and noble. But Jews who too eagerly scold Israel are playing goody two shoes to a world that does not want an Israel and does not like Jews who are too Jewish. If Lerner were truly speaking to power, he’d try speaking to the powers that want Israel dismantled. But it was the likes of Lerner whom Robert Frost had in mind when he wrote, “A liberal is a man too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel.”  

If I sound dismayed with the Left it’s because I am. I am as dismayed with the Left in the teens as I was with the Right in the sixties. The Israel bashing of the left, it’s refusal to assign responsibility to the Palestinians for their own plight, their whitewashing of Palestinian violence as political protest, even blaming the police shootings in America on Israel, is their contribution to helping maintain a conflict that should have been resolved decades ago. Sometimes the rich and powerful are just and the poor and powerless are criminals. That’s not always the case, but the inverse is equally false. Simplistic formulas do not reflect reality.

Not to worry. I would never ask anyone to abandon their liberalism or pursuit of justice. That would make no sense. But should someone tell you that you’re not a true liberal until you demand freedom for Palestine from the hand of the oppressive Zionists, tell them three things: 1) Palestine will free itself when its leadership consents to peaceful co-existence with Israel; 2) people who cherish free thinking don’t tell others what to think; and 3) denying one’s own interests is not proof of objectivity, but the absence of self-esteem, the effects of generations of anti-Semites and Jewish reformists blathering about the evils of chosen-ness, as if feeling special about oneself or one’s people was some moral wrong.



Monday, January 9, 2017

GOD’S UNWITTING MESSENGERS: A REFLECTION ON MY RETARDED BROTHER



This is about my eldest brother (though really much more) who recently passed on at the age of 80.  My mother had experienced a difficult labor and the doctor at the time took to assisting Sherwin’s entry into the world with forceps.  There are some risks to both mother and child in such a procedure, and in our family’s case, my brother was accidentally brain damaged.  It left him partially paralyzed from birth and incapable of developing intellectually beyond that of a five or six year old.

By the time I entered this world, there were some eighteen years between us.  My mother was no longer able to handle Sherwin and he ended up a resident in a number of institutions for retarded individuals.  And yes—that’s what he was, retarded.  We didn’t say “developmentally disabled” or any of those other pc locutions.  We said the word respectfully and somberly.   It was not an epithet designed to generate laughter—there was nothing funny about this situation.  The word bore, for my mother, a degree of shame and guilt that she could never shake.  It shouldn’t have meant any of those things to her, but it did.  We were a family with a retarded child.

My earliest memories of visiting Sherwin in the Faribault, MN mental institution go back to the early 60’s.  We first had to go to a central office to announce our presence.  The central office called the building where Sherwin resided (the institution was a complex of several large buildings) to inform the staff that family was in to visit.  We drove to the building and then my father or mother would walk in, me tagging along, to retrieve Sherwin.  Inside the building was a world both mesmerizing and frightening.  People in wheel chairs staring listlessly, kids in football helmets spinning endlessly, residents with deformed faces hobbling about, their clothes in varying degrees of disarray.  Some residents would walk straight up to you and start talking nonsensically.  And then came Sherwin—bolting out of the double doors with a big crooked smile on his face.

His body was unaligned, the left side always drooping downward.  You’d think he would fall the way he walked, and sometimes he did.  But he was always so excited for those Saturday afternoon visits, as he knew he would get a car ride in the countryside, see some eighteen-wheelers, on a lucky day—a freight train—and be treated to an ice cream cone or his favorite, a chocolate shake.  He inhaled those shakes.  My mother would reprimand him to drink slower.  But he had two speeds: slurping and super slurping.

My mother, who was a talented baker, would bring him brownies and nut bars.  And on Purim, she would be sure to bring him her perfectly constructed hammantaschen which he devoured in single bites.  On Passover, my parents brought him boxes of matzah.  They always strove to remind him that in the gentile world of the mental institution, he was a Jew.  But my two very Jewish parents were working against forces much stronger than their own aspirations.  When asked what he had for breakfast, Sherwin would often shout with glee and without hesitation, “Pork chops,” which provoked a series of “Oy vey”s from my parents and laughter from his siblings. He would respond to our questions with two or three words—no more.  And if we asked him too many questions, he often drifted into his own world and simply emitted a sound—“Bah.”

Loving Sherwin was not without its complications.  On the one hand, how can you not love your big brother?  On the other hand, how can one love a person, albeit innocent, who nonetheless is a source of pain and guilt to one’s parents?  Yet I knew they loved him deeply, and if he were to God forbid die during their lifetime, that would have finished them off forever.  I prayed that he outlive them both.  He did.  Go Sherwin!

Then, of course, there was always the question of how God could have done this to our family.  Was it a test?  Was it a punishment?  Was it some cruel cosmic joke?  All this brought me to ponder what life might have been like without him.  How would I be different?  And without Sherwin, my life and the life of my other brother and sister, would indeed be very different.  Sherwin was a very visceral, dramatic and cogent demonstration of the tenuous and delicate nature of life, the healing power of love and compassion, and the 24/7 gratitude we all ought to feel that our bodies and minds don’t face the challenges that his did.  Lest we think that he or any of his retarded compatriots were anything less than human, our tradition provided us with a blessing upon seeing such individuals—Praise are You, YHVH, who leads us through this magnificent universe, who creates a diversity of living things.

Actually, I never believed that God created Sherwin as he was.  That was human error.  But my family made sure to make me see the image of God he bore, the very same image borne by all humanity.  The diversity blessing thus stood.

After my mother’s death in 2009, my sister took over as the Protector in Chief of Sherwin.  His body, particularly his gastrointestinal track, was showing signs of wear and tear.  The State of Minnesota, of which Sherwin was a ward, and to which we owe a great debt for Sherwin’s care, was always a little too eager to do surgery.  There was no malice there and no nefarious objectives, but the family did not see the risk of surgery commensurate with the reward.  And my sister, Jackie, channeling my mother no doubt, would just not let it happen, to the point where she legally replaced the state-appointed guardian with herself.  There were any number of battles fought to protect him from the scalpel, and when Sherwin left us, he left because he was no longer able to absorb any nutrition, not a brownie, not a shake, and certainly not a pork chop.

Toward his last day or so, Jackie called me and asked if it would be appropriate to recite a prayer for Sherwin, especially while she and my brother-in-law Hal, and other family members were present at his bedside.  I’ve recited prayers for the dying many times but only in their presence, never over the phone, and never while riding the Long Island Railroad to Manhattan’s Penn Station.  Oh well—when is it wrong to pray and who among us hasn’t prayed while riding the LIRR?  So I mustered a few words of prayer, reminded Sherwin of all the people who love him, and all the people he touched in his own life, and how Mommy and Daddy were with him in that room.  I sealed the prayer with the Shema and the last words of Adon Olam which affirm that we are never alone in this world, especially when facing the final journey of our lives.  Sherwin died within 24 hours.  He died about as whole as an 80 year old mentally and physically incapacitated man can, in a deep sleep, and surrounded by people he loved and who loved him.  Of the more puzzling verses in Ecclesiastes is—“…better the day of death than the day of birth” (Ec. 7:1), a rather outrageous claim if ever there was one.  But in Sherwin’s case, Ecclesiastes may just have nailed it.

I assume no special privileges with the good Lord, in spite of my many years in His employ.  I imagine I’ve got God’s ear as much as the next guy, though I don’t pretend to be in any position to tell Him what to do.  But were I in that position, and if the kabbalists are right about the doctrine of reincarnation, then I would ask God to give my parents, in their next lives, a family free of a child with such disabilities.  And as for Sherwin, in spite of all the reasons he gave us to think about the larger issues in life—compassion, gratitude, the vicissitudes of nature—I’d still ask God to give him a second shot.  He deserved better.  And all those precious lessons that I learned from him, I’d be happy to relearn, but at no other person’s expense.  Though I wonder if that is even possible.  And here is the scariest thought—maybe we “normal” humans don’t learn these lessons until people like Sherwin thrust them into our lives.  And maybe that is the ultimate meaning of their lives, to act as God’s unwitting messengers for the many of us who get caught in the petty and the trivial, missing the more enduring and profound, our “normal” mental and emotional faculties to sort it all out being so terribly retarded.


Thursday, October 13, 2016

NEW EYES IN A NEW YEAR

Yom Kippur / 10 Tishrei, 5777 / October 11-12, 2016


                Gut Yontif, everyone.  It’s great to see everyone back in synagogue for the holiday and I want to wish everyone a tzom kal—an easy fast.

                So far this New Year, we have yet to play around with the Hebrew letters composing the year 5777—Tav, shin, ayin, zayin.  And the reason for this is when we take all these letters and try to read them as a Hebrew word, they come out as total gibberish.  On the other hand, were we Kabbalists, we would drop the 5000, play only with the number 777, and look for a phrase itself whose letters add up to 777.  That phrase I have for you, one with which you are certainly familiar.  It is from the first paragraph of the Shema:

They shall be for a reminder / frontlets above your eyes

The challenge of this phrase is the difficulty in translating the word “totafot.”  It’s a word that appears only twice in the Bible, both times in the Torah, and it is unclear what it means.  The notion that it refers to the tefillin of the head is an interpretation of the word, but not a translation. If the word means “reminder,” as our mahzor indicates, then one must wonder how effective a reminder placing a post-it above your eyes would be.  How can something you don’t see remind you of anything?  If a better translation is “frontlet,” you might ask yourself what exactly is a frontlet.  Just out of curiosity, I went to Amazon.com to see if I could order a “frontlet” and indeed I can.  I can purchase an item with the catchy title “Korean Style Wedding Bridal Crystal Flower Draped Rhinestone Tiara Frontlet,” for $17 plus shipping.  I’m going to stick with my tefillin, but it’s comforting to know that frontlets are alive and well in the marketplace.  I like to think of the totafot, the whatever that goes above our eyes as something akin to a third eye.  The third eye in certain mystical traditions is the eye that allows for greater insight, vision beyond the obvious.  We don those totafot in order to see deeper into reality—whether ourselves or the world around us—and we do so by placing the words of Torah, which is what the tefillin contain, close to our eyes.
Anyway, we do not wear tefillin on Yom Kippur or Rosh Hashanah or any other Jewish holiday, the holidays themselves being vehicles of enhanced insight.  Each of the holidays present us with their own charms, and certainly that is true of Yom Kippur.  For many years now, I have been asking the B’nei Mitzvah students what their favorite holiday is and as one might well imagine, Yom Kippur does not make the grade.  Yom Kippur does not even make it into the Top Ten list of most popular holidays.  In fact, I can recall only one instance of a student actually telling me that Yom Kippur was his favorite holiday.  It is odd that a holiday which routinely fills the synagogue to overflowing each year should be so unpopular, even among kids.  On the one hand, it is a Day of Self-Affliction, and who really would rate that sort of spiritual exercise over a Hanukkah, or a Purim, or a Simhat Torah?  On the other hand, there is a Mishnah (Ta’anit 4:8) which states that the revered rabbi, Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel stated that there were no better days in Israel than the Fifteenth of Av and the Day of Atonement…”  Both these days were days when young people sought each other out for romantic reasons and creating family.  Those are reasons based on hope and optimism.  One might think them out of place on a day like Yom Kippur when our apprehension about the future would theoretically be most intense.  And yet—the reality of how the Hakhamim, the Sages, viewed this sacred day is just the opposite of what one might assume.  I think we need our totafot, our Third Eye, to examine this paradox deeper.

                Yom Kippur is a day heavy with prohibitions.  It incorporates all the prohibitions of Shabbat and adds six more—we are prohibited from eating, drinking, bathing, wearing leather shoes, anointing (which probably means the use of colognes or perfumes), and sexual intimacy.  This cluster of Shabbat and Yom Kippur No-Nos encompass most of what it is that makes us alive and human.  What do people do?  We eat, we drink, we cook, we bake, we buy, we sell, we love, we vacation, and all these activities would be asur, forbidden on Yom Kippur.  There are at least two ways of looking at this corpus of constraint.  The first is to see it as playing dead, for the dead also do not/cannot engage in any of these things.

                The encounter with our own mortality is an aspect of Yom Kippur observance that is virtually undeniable.  This is a day of deliberately diminishing physical pleasure as a way of reminding ourselves that life is finite.  We all have a beginning and an end.  At the end, people tend to think a lot of what has gone on in their lives since the beginning.  Judaism has this great idea.  Why wait?  Why wait until there’s little or no time left to correct the deficiencies, or the missteps, or the indiscretions, or the pettiness?  All these prohibitions may be a way that we transform today into our last day, in order to motivate ourselves to make the necessary changes before—and God-willing—way before it’s too late.  But we needn’t think of this day as a day of death, for there is a second way of looking at all these prohibitions.  We might also think of it as a day of eternal life, living as it were like the eternal angels of Heaven above, because they, too, live daily without food or water or leather shoes and so forth.

Now before we go too far down this metaphorical path, a word on angels.  Do we believe in angels?  In answer to that question, I give you a definitive ‘yes’ and ‘no.’  Typically, any statement that begins—Jews believe in...—is almost always going to be off-base.  We are a curious, open-minded, respectful, rebellious, provocative, faithful, feisty collection of people, and we hold many contradictory opinions.  Some of us believe in angels and some of us don’t. What there is no denying is the role angels play as characters in both our biblical and rabbinic literatures and as such, there were Jews whose belief in angels was as strong as their belief in God.  Angels, in this case, were God’s helpers.  They were messengers that acted as liaison between God and humanity.  They could assume physical shape as did the three messengers who brought news to Abraham and Sarah that they would soon become parents.  They could be athletic as the angel who wrestled Jacob.  Some were thought to have wings as those fashioned over the Ark of the Covenant that held the Ten Commandments in the wilderness.  Or they could be wielding swords of fire as the angels assigned to block reentry into the Garden of Eden after Adam and Eve’s eviction. 

For those of us who may have difficulty in believing in angels, think of angels like this—idealized, theoretical human beings who are completely moral and righteous, impervious to decay, and capable of flight without need for TSA pat-downs or surcharges on baggage.  Angels are very cool.  That the architects of Yom Kippur thought us capable of becoming angelic is not so far-fetched.  In Psalms we read: 

 [God], You have made us just shy of divine creatures (Psalm 8:6)

And so the biblical author’s conception of who we are:  AA’s, Almost Angels.  Today, we remove ourselves from human pleasures not because we are dead, but because we are more than alive.  All those pleasures mentioned earlier—eating, drinking, bathing and so forth—they are unnecessary and unessential.  For a 25-hour period, we are able to see our lives and the lives of those around us with the broadest of all perspectives, as if we were in heaven itself looking over our selves, our families, our communities, our nation and seeing our lives in a way that we have never seen our lives before.

                I want to tell you about an affair, a wedding—not an unusual happening by any stretch of the imagination—but nonetheless an affair, a wedding, that helps us see such a common event as extraordinary.  Do you remember in the film Schindler’s List, there was a wedding depicted in the Plaszow Concentration Camp?  That wedding was not Hollywood fantasy but the recreation of the wedding between Joseph Bau and Rebecca Tennenbaum that really took place in the camp.  It was a wedding that took place in secret, as it was illegal, but it was a wedding that took place because Joseph and Rebecca were determined to do something human in spite of the landscape of death in which they found themselves.  And besides that, they were very much in love.  Joseph Bau was a very interesting man.  He was an artist and in his youth, he learned German Gothic lettering which allowed him to create, in essence forge, German passports and identification certificates granting many Jews escape from Europe.  When asked why he did not create such documentation for himself, he said, “If I make documents for myself, who would help the others?”  Joseph and Rebecca were separated, she sent to Auschwitz, but after the war, they reunited, made aliyah, and Joseph took up his artistic ventures there.  He was actually the one who created documentation for both the Israeli spy Eli Cohen who did masterful espionage work in Syria before his execution, and also for the Israeli team that captured Adolph Eichmann in Argentina.  Today in Tel Aviv, there is the Joseph Bau Museum which features an exhibition of his work.  A couple years ago, the curators of the museum, Joseph and Rebecca’s daughters, decided to celebrate the 70th anniversary of that Concentration Camp wedding at Nahalat Yitzhak Cemetery, near Tel Aviv, where their parents are buried.  Now people celebrate anniversaries all the time, and in securing the proper venue for the celebration, a cemetery is not what typically gets chosen.  But that is where the celebration took place.  Here is what their daughters, Klilah and Hadassah said:

“According to Jewish tradition, in times of deep desperation, a wedding ceremony would be held in the cemetery, symbolically linking the living and the dead,” Clila Bau told JNS.org. “The bride and groom, who had to be orphans, would stand among the dead to ask for rachmanut (mercy) from God, both for themselves and their community. They sought a promise from God, the ultimate matchmaker, for continued life.”
“Our parents were that bride and groom,” said Hadasa Bau. “We [created] this symbolic wedding so that Israel, our country, will always have love.”

When is a wedding a miracle?  The wedding of Joseph and Rebecca Bau was a miracle taking place as it did in a prison where both weddings love and even a kiss were forbidden.  But here is an equally compelling question.  When is a wedding not a miracle?  When is the decision of two people to devote themselves to each other and to sanctify that union within a gathering of friends and family not a miracle in a world like ours, wounded by corruption and bleeding from terrorism?  In a world that daily assaults our faith in the future, when is a wedding not a miracle?  And this question—When is it not a miracle?—is a question that can be asked of so many moments in our lives whether big life cycle situations like a Brit Milah or Bar/t Mitzvah, or the smaller mundane activities like mobility from one space to the next, communication between two parties, education or the growth that comes from learning new things.  Humans may not see readily the divine in all we do, but the angels view the world with much different eyes.
               
Many of the Birkot Hoda’ah, Blessings of Appreciation, are blessings that have to do with seeing.  These blessings are our tools that help us focus on those points in time when insight and appreciation intersect to create what is essentially a WOW moment.  Every blessing begins as one might expect—Barukh atah Adonai, we bless you God; eloheinu melekh ha’olam, the One who guides us through this universe, and then there is the hatimah, the conclusion to the berakhah.  The conclusion changes to fit the WOW moment.

The blessing for seeing beautiful trees or fields:  shekakha lo ba’olamo—so it is in God’s world. 

The blessing for seeing a great Torah scholar: shehalak meihokhmato lirei’av—for God has transferred wisdom to those who revere the sacred within the world.

The blessing for seeing a great secular scholar:  shenatan meihokhmato l’vasar vadam—for God has granted wisdom to all humankind.

There is even a blessing for coming to a place of a personal miracle: she’asah neis li bamakom hazeh—for having made a miracle for me in this place.  There is something extraordinary in this blessing, the blessing that acknowledges some encounter with God in an otherwise common place. 

Where is the place of your personal miracle?  Again, we needn’t think of a miracle as a supernatural event, we need think of it only as a moment in our lives when the unanticipated materializes before our eyes.  Is your personal miracle at a hospital where you had surgery? An intersection where you were in an accident?  An office building where you were given your first job?  Is it a grave where lays buried one who gave you an identity like no one else could have?  Is it, perhaps, not a place but a time like an anniversary?  The birthday of a child?  A day of retirement?  You may never have thought of these moments in time or these places in your history as moments or places of miracle, but now imagine you are looking at them with an angel’s eyes, on this day when we live as angels, on this day when we reconsider just how much we have to be grateful for.

There is a blessing we say upon seeing 600,000 Jews.  The blessing is not Oy Vey!  Someone once asked me—when are you ever in the presence of 600,000 Jews.  I told him, “You apparently have never flown El Al to Israel.  In that one Boeing 747…”  It’s the blessing you say when you are in the presence of many Jews.  Perhaps, like right now:  Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu melekh ha’olam, hakham harazim:  We bless you God who walks us through an incredible universe who is the One who knows all of our secrets.   With this one blessing we can never treat a large group of people as an anonymous crowd, but rather know that each individual here is a person in her or his own right and there is a Knowing within the universe, with a capital ‘K’, that understands each and everyone one of us, our weaknesses and our strengths, our shortcomings and talents, our dreams and our nightmares, and that Knowing is God.

How many times have you had a conversation with someone and afterwards you walked away saying, “I never knew that…”?  I never knew she was in an abusive relationship.  I never knew he’s been out of work for the past six months.  I never knew she lost a child.  I never knew she had breast cancer last year.  There’s lots of things we don’t know.  We may pretend to be angels on this day, but we are neither angels nor God.   We need to walk this world with a greater sense of humility for what we rarely or cannot see far exceeds that which we can see.  Knowing how little we can see, is an important insight.  And so   we pray:

 [God], Deal with us justly and lovingly…

Cut us a little slack God because all too often we operate as if we see much more than we do and we also miss so much of what ought to be apparent—namely, the presence of God in our lives.  We apologize for our myopia, for our inability to see the miracle in our lives, the lives of our children and our grandchildren.  Cut us a little slack God and we promise to cut everyone in our lives a little more slack as well. 

                So I ask this kid:  Yom Kippur, that’s your favorite holiday?  How is that?  And he said, “I was born on Yom Kippur; it’s my Jewish birthday.”

                If Yom Kippur were your birthday, you’d love it too.  But here’s the thing.  On this Yom HaDin, this Day of Judgement, this Yom Kippur, it should be everyone’s birth day—perhaps our Re-birthday.  This should be the day when we begin to see the world with our totafot, our third eye, securely above our eyes, judging less, loving more, and always searching deeper into our lives and our own humanity for the presence of God, the energy of insight and kindness, love and optimism, the force of spirit that resides with us always. 


                Tzom Kal—an easy fast everyone.