01 October 2009

Sukkot is Coming - Just in Time

It's cold out. Really cold. Okay, it's not below zero yet, baruch hashem . . . but it's below 50. We're supposed to have overnight frost. I work with teens; I live in a small apartment with nowhere to build a sukkah. So, what am I doing for Sukkot? That's right, I'm taking 15 teens camping. 

I never used to overpack. Raised in large part by a summer camp in Missouri at which overpacking was one of the gravest of all sins, I knew at a young age that I could well get by for a good three weeks without a lot of stuff. Lately when I travel, I try to plan ahead for contingencies. I feel like no matter what I do I won't really be prepared for whatever is coming, but instead of embracing that and knowing whatever I have and whatever I am it will be enough I pad myself with more baggage. Well, we all know how helpful that is.

I'm almost 35, I live in a 1 bedroom apartment and everything I own fits in it just fine. The only stuff part of my life that is overwhelming is my books. I have numerous shelves of them. In every room. Compared to the average American, I don't have much stuff. But really, should America be the scale for that? 

I recently read, on the blog of one of my teachers, that a 15 year old boy rarely wears his own clothing. Why? Well because when he sees someone else who his shirt or shorts or shoes would fit, he just gives them his clothing. This child comes from a family very privileged in love, but not one with  a lot of stuff. He lives in Honduras. Last night I fell asleep thinking about his actions and couldn't decide what to call it. It's not really generosity, I don't think - and he and I have never met, but I am tempted to think it's faith. There is nothing dangerous in giving away what you have when you are confident you will always have what you need. 

In personal experience, love for "my kids" works like that. I can give my heart to kids 27 hours a day without getting tired. (plenty of other things totally wear me out, but not that) 

This year, I'm going to welcome in the ushpizin and ask them to help me remember that other things in my life could work like that, too. It feels risky. Living in a tent when it might freeze overnight, dwelling in a sukkah with only 3 1/2 walls and schach for a roof. Or maybe, not taking the risk IS the risk. Maybe not giving my body an opportunity to live the trust and the hope I want in my heart, mind and soul IS the risk.   
And when I pack for camping, I'll make sure there is enough - enough rain gear, enough warm bedding, enough layers, enough food . . . a siddur, a Tanakch and then I'll trust God and the world to provide the rest. For three days with 15 teens and some trees, and some lake, and some field, and some fire . . . God's toys, God's playground, God's schedule.

Whatever it is, it'll be enough, and maybe we'll all come home a little lighter, a little more faith-full, and a little more trusting. 


23 August 2009

Prairie Flowers During Elul

I learned this weekend that prairie flowers live 2/3rd under the soil. All of that gorgeous flower above ground, but below, there is a whole life going on we never even stop to think about. Wildflowers are always my favorite. I've never liked store-bought roses.

Spending three days camping by myself around prairie flowers got me thinking about the fact that in my life, even though I'm hardly living my whole life on the surface, there is nothing in my life that couldn't exist on the surface. No part of my life is private by necessity. I have no secret escapes. There is nothing I do, not one thing, that if my students or their parents found out about it would be truly problematic. The only problem would be that they'd laugh at me. Guaranteed my students (even the 7th graders) have had more action this year than I have. 

That's good, right? Not necessarily their choices, but mine. I mean, here I am, a not-halachically-observant-progressive-not-really-reform-or-conservative-but-definitely-not-orthodox-jewish-woman who has no skeletons in my closet. Oh, right, except for envy . . . the envy of other people's closets. That's right, not just their skeletons . . . I even envy the rooms they put them in.

Not that there is nothing for which I should ask forgiveness as I prepare for the High Holidays. On the contrary . . . for the sins I have committed, the list feels endless. But I think my worst is the sin of wishing I could allow myself to actually live 2/3rds of my life - or any of it - in secret. 

I have followed the rules. No, I'm not shomer negillah, not really. But I'm a single woman living in a secular world who has not kissed anyone in over a year. My last serious relationship ended in 2005. I've kissed two people since that. One because it was the easiest way to end the date. I'm not proud of that, and that kiss was terrible. It confirmed for me that there is no good reason to kiss someone when one doesn't actually WANT to. The other was on a 6th or 7th date . . . and comparatively, it was a pretty chaste kiss. I mean, I enjoyed it, but it also ended as nothing more than a kiss, and therefore it's also likely why I never saw or heard from him again. Well, that and the fact that I wouldn't stay over that night, either. He wouldn't tell me about his sister over dinner because he didn't think we knew each other well enough for family stories. A few hours later, though, he was quite certain we knew each other well enough to spend the night together. I went home. I did not kiss him good-night. 

And the thing is, I didn't leave because I didn't want to have sex. I did. A lot. I left because I didn't want to have sex with him, this man I'd basically just met, who I had barely gotten to know, who  . . . there were so many questions I didn't want to have to ask him yet - questions about being tested, and values, and what sex meant to him . . . and I know, I have always known, that for me substituting one man for another would never work. Having sex with someone because I want to be touched will not make up for not having sex with the person I wish were touching me.

In part I started this blog so I'd have a place in my life that could be a secret - something I could keep from my students and even from some of my friends. Secrets I could keep from my mother.  I have a secret identity here - sort of. All of this anonymous freedom and most of my entries have been Torah discussions. Yes, honest frustration with religion, religious communities, God, and life, and men . . . but really, a secret?

It's not that I'm keeping anything back - it's that I have nothing more interesting to divulge. This blog is my 2/3rd with one exception. I'm trying to keep the anger out of it. I don't want to give voice to how angry I actually am. I don't think it'll help, and it'll just  . . . talk me down. It'll make it worse. That's why I kind of stopped blogging. I don't think anything I have to say is actually constructive - even though it's all true. 

Anyway, I'm not sure why I'm writing now. Maybe I want suggestions for how to develop the secret life I neglected when I had the chance in college and in grad school. Maybe I want affirmation that secret lives are overrated. Maybe I want someone to convince me to just give it up and go frum. Maybe I want to be rescued. From what? I don't even know.

What's my 2/3rds?

I don't even know.



05 August 2009

What's Love Got to Do With It?

Tu B'Av - the Jewish day of love. It's not Valentine's Day; there isn't a saint to be found. However, two of my students crashed my office today so we could go out to lunch and learn more about this summer holiday. (Amazing what we learn about each other on Facebook! My status = Jewish outreach. Nice!) Of course, being the middle of a lunar month, it's also a full moon. I'm sitting in the car outside a coffee shop so I'm almost outside and have internet access. The sky is clear and dark and the moon is full. When I lived in Australia I found the night sky unsettling. No north star, no dipper . . . I wasn't sure how to find comfort in the southern cross or the sisters. Yet, there is the same moon, and the Jewish calendar still works. I'm not sure how I'd observe Jewish holidays on another planet - that seems problematic.

It's true, I'm rambling.

I have a friend in Honduras asking where the love is - but he is not referencing vineyards or moons, he's just wondering when his country will feel safe again.

05 May 2009

The View

I woke up to rain this morning. It was 5am, and the gentle tapping on the walls of my tent was either spring drizzle or ants dancing. My dog curled in closer to me. In his world, there is only one reason for rain - an opportunity to sleep in.

So, there I was, inside the blue world of my tent, alone with my dog, one of I think four people camping at that state park last night. I was wishing I weren't alone, and glad I was all at the same time.

And I wondered . . . what would it take for me to make this my life.

24 March 2009

The Silver Standard

I haven't been around on here in awhile, but I have spent a lot of time lately listening to NPR while eating hamantashen and thinking about matzah. I know it’s not the Torah, but it’s still a fairly classic Jewish experience and it has me wondering:

Are we more likely to strive to create ourselves in God’s image, or instead try to create a god in our image? And furthermore, do we want our leaders to be just like us when we are at our most ordinary, or do we desire something exceptional from them?

Back in Persia, King Ahashverosh and Haman didn’t do anything that hadn’t been done before. They benefited from and continued creating a society where the measure of human worth and the whole purpose of living was money and power and pleasure for its own sake.

As has been said about other leaders, it may be obvious that King Ahashverosh would have been more fun to hang out with at a bar than Moredechai and yet in the Talmud, Megilla 12a we learn: when the students of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai asked him, “why did the Jews of that generation deserve to be placed under an edict of destruction?” he told them, “You know the answer.” They responded, “Because they went to the party of Ahashverosh.”

Surely I am not the only one who has weeks when Science Friday and This American Life and Speaking of Faith the news and our holidays all blend together into something of a personal spiritual distraction.

Nothing much new seems to be happening right now in the Torah anyway.

We are in the desert . . . still. We are building a tabernacle, a mishkan, in the wilderness . . . still . . . just like we’ve been doing for the past several weeks.

T’rumah, T’tzaveh, Ki Tisa all arguably tell the same story over and over.

At first in Vayakheil it seems like things might be a little different, after all, we barely get started and God commands us NOT to construct the Mishkan on the 7th day because on the 7th we have Shabbat . . . but then in verses 5-29 they do pretty much what we’ve been told to do the past 3 weeks.

Our second parsha for the week P’Kudei is where it really gets . . .well, we could say . . . it really gets riveting.

Chapter 38 Verse 27 is where it gets really good.

Verse 27 is very specific.

In fact, I’m beginning to think verse 27 may be the clue to what this long, detailed telling of the building of the mishkan was . . . building up to.

Basically: 100 talents of silver. 100 Sockets. 100 talents. 1 talent per socket.

See what I mean?

I didn’t expect it either.

I think that clue actually leads us back to the first verses of this parsha, 21 and 22.

It opens with Moses demanding an accounting of all of the materials that went into the building of the mishkan. Bezalel (of the tribe of Judah) is there, too. And it ends with “all that the Lord had commanded Moses”.


Juicier than I thought.

Politics, intrigue, how much does it cost to put in a new sink at the White House? You caught that, right?

We have just spent weeks reading about the building of the Mishkan in great detail. We’ve read about weights and measures, about materials, about this kind of wood and that kind of animal skin. We’ve read about the ½ shekel and about how each person will apply his or her skill skillfully. I mean – details. BUT NOW – now we have Moses – the leader of our people, the man we’d think was above reproach, who is humble, and wise, who is brave, who has seen the FACE of God – HIM – OUR GUY MOSHE – he asks for an accounting of each and every item that has gone into building this thing.


I mean, this is the stuff a good “This Mesopotamian Life” NPR story is made of!

But wait . . . oh yes . . . there’s more:

That last bit, “As the Lord had commanded Moses” . . . that part is repeated over, and over, and over in this parsha.

For the Torah, which never wastes a single letter, much less a single word, to have that much repetition in one parsha . . . well, even in a distracted week that can get my attention - that’s got to mean something.

So, why might Moses make sure there is an accounting, why is it okay with God that Moses is going out on his own here – ordering that things be done that God never said needed to be done, and why is it that we are told repeatedly that all was done – specifically that MOSES did everything - JUST as God had commanded Moses to do?

When I started looking into Moses’ actions more, I found some things that might help.
First, a legal story:

At the height of a political corruption trial, the prosecuting attorney verbally attacked a witness. "Isn't it true," he bellowed, "that you accepted five thousand dollars to compromise this case?" The witness stared out the window as though he hadn't heard the question. "Isn't it true that you accepted five thousand dollars to compromise this case?" the lawyer repeated loudly. The witness still did not respond. Finally, the judge leaned over and said, "Sir, please answer the question." "Oh," the startled witness said, "I thought he was talking to you."

According to our tradition (Song R. 3:7) Moses needed to show he was above reproach, so he carefully recorded all of the expenditures for building the mishkan and the furnishings and at each step we are reminded that all of the gold and the silver and the acacia wood was part of the project not by Moses’ choice but was done, “just as God had commanded him.”

Our texts explain that because some Israelites knew themselves well enough to know they would have taken advantage of all of the silver and gold for their own enrichment, they suspected Moses was no better.

They knew themselves, and Moses knew the Israelites.

Therefore, Moses made sure not only that he was above reproach, but also that he demonstrated that he was above reproach.

The Midrash goes on to detail that the people who prepared incense for the Temple service similarly would – and should - never wear perfume nor would they have their family members wear perfume.

The Midrash also describes the official who observed the shekel offering as wearing a special garment with no pockets and no long sleeves so no one could suspect him of pocketing the public funds.

Ultimately, as we remember from T’rumah, the purpose of the mishkan had nothing to do with Moses in his status as a leader. The whole reason God commanded Moses and the Israelites to build the mishkan was so that God could dwell among them. It wasn’t even so God could dwell in it, or so God could chat with Moses, but among them. Each of them – perfectly ordinary people created in the image of God. What might it mean to try to live up to God’s expectations when we are aware that our ordinariness is balanced by being created in God’s image?

God’s expectations for Moses as a leader were different from God’s expectations of Bezalel as a craftsman, and God’s expectations for Bezalel were different from God’s expectations of the guy who made the incense or observed the shekel collection or the women who wove the curtain for the Ark. We could therefore surmise that God also has unique expectations for each of us.

Thinking back on NPR calls to mind the politician who legislated the strict prosecution of prostitution and then was caught with a prostitute, or the comedian who no one cared got his taxes wrong becoming a candidate for the senate a position wherein he’d have power over the distribution of taxes. We've also been hearing a lot about President Obama. He made an inappropriate joke comparing his notoriously bad bowling skills to the Special Olympics on Leno. Ordinarily, that would be the sort of behavior I would suggest goes completely against what is required of us from this parsha. However, his actions did not end there. The joke had not even aired yet when he got on the phone from Air Force One, called Tim Shriver of the Special Olympics Board, apologized, and then made his apology public.

None of us is perfect, but we are each created in God’s image. There are times when each of us are in roles of authority and responsibility. When we are, what are God’s expectations of each of us?

Maybe Mordechai never fantasized about skipping out on making Havdallah so he could relax and hang out at one of King Ahashverosh’s parties. Maybe Moses never considered keeping his vacation destination a secret for a change and going to Vegas instead of hiking in the desert. Maybe Bezalel never wished Moses would tell the story about when he lost his temper and hit the rock so he, Bezalel, could feel better about his own weaknesses . . . but I hope they did. I hope they fantasized about it, considered it, and wished it, and then didn’t do it.

I’m often uncomfortably comforted when great leaders have a vice – smoking, for example - because like me there is something they aren’t good at, some bad habit they cannot kick or make a mistake. The idea of God or a leader being a “slob like one of us” is comfort we can even sing to.

And yet, I don’t want to be created in the image of a slob. I don’t my leaders to encourage me to excuse my vices. I want them to show me how they work to overcome their vices, and how they strive to remedy their mistakes. I want them to hold themselves, in their roles, to a high standard and to challenge me to do the same.

In my job I teach about Jewish values of relationships and sex and sexuality, and I’m single – which ostensibly means I may (occasionally) date.

My friends outside my Jewish work circle often tease me about the debate I have with myself about where I go on dates – do I go somewhere where I’m fairly likely to run into a student (and have)? Who I date - do I date men who aren’t Jewish? If I choose not to see someone anymore, for any reason, I have an obligation to make that decision and to carry it out in recognition of the other person as created in the image of God, and of myself as being “holy” because God is holy. Why? Because every opportunity I get I remind our teens that is our job in relationships. Because I really do believe I am commanded to remember that I am holy because God is holy and created me to be holy.

What about other people, I wonder.

What does it mean for you, in your life, in the places where you are a leader, to wear clothes without pockets, avoid perfume, and to keep a careful enough accounting?

Whatever it means for you, I suspect we all need reminders now and then.

For a reminder, we have Shabbat every week - when we are specifically commanded not to make use of our sockets and our silver to build the mishkan – or whatever its equivalent in our lives – and to instead step back and take an accounting and recommit ourselves to a higher standard.

On the other hand, after spending my life following all the 'rules' (by which I DO NOT mean that book) I am now in a place where I'm wondering whether they actually make sense. For now I'm continuing to choose against the king's party and against the trop to Vegas, but I am basing those choices on habit more than conviction.

Yes, there are consequences that trouble me for the people who built the golden calf. However, there are also consequences that trouble me for the people who didn't.

08 March 2009

From: http://www.aish.com/purimthemes/purimthemesdefault/Darkness_Before_the_Dawn.asp

""All prophetic books and the sacred writings will cease (to be recited) during the Messianic era, except the Book of Esther. It will continue to exist, just as the Five Books of the Torah and the Oral Torah that will never cease." (Rambam, Megillah 2:18)

What is the lesson of this book that will never lose its relevance, even as all other troubles of the Jewish nation will fade from memory?

Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner, in his book Pachad Yitzchak, explains with a beautiful metaphor: There are two ways one can recognize his friend in the dark. One way is to use a flashlight. The other way is to get to know the friend by using other senses other than sight to recognize his presence. When the sun comes up, the one who used his flashlight will find it no longer necessary and will cast it aside. But the one who had to train himself in lieu of a flashlight, to sense his friend in other ways, has acquired a deeper knowledge and understanding of his friend and the relationship, even in daylight, will inevitably be enhanced as a result.

So, too, we - the Jewish People - have spent millennia in an effort to recognize God. Leaving Egypt was a flashlight - the Ten Plagues and the miraculous events that followed taught the Jewish People invaluable lessons about their King. And yet, when the sun comes up and the Messiah arrives, the revelation and clarity will be so bright that all holidays and writings commemorating those events will dim in comparison.

Purim, on the other hand, was a story in which no light was switched on. The heroes of the hour and the nation as a whole had to grope and stumble in the interminable darkness and slowly and hesitatingly train themselves in a new approach to relating to God in such a time."

I haven't written for awhile, been working hard getting ready for Purim, in fact! Not a lot of extra time on my hands.

However, I love this teaching about Purim. I have often said that if I had to choose between showing up at shul for the High Holidays and showing up for Purim, I'd pick Purim. If my someday-children ever start refusing to come to synagogue, I'll let them out of Yom Kippur before I'll let them out of Purim. (or Sukkot or Shavuot . . . with some special Tu B'Av muffins, and a HUGE Lag B'Omer bonfire . . . .who doesn't like muffins and fire???)

This I love: Getting to know God in the dark . . . and the idea that this is the chag we'll be celebrating with the Messiah . . .

Can't come soon enough!

02 February 2009

I Want the Direct Flight

It happened when Pharaoh sent out the people that God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, because it was near, for God said, “Perhaps the people will reconsider when they see a war, and they will return to Egypt.” (Beshalach, Ex. 13:17)

Having just decided last night to start looking for work opportunities in other places, actually consider and be open to moving instead of just vaguely thinking about it, and spent a significant period of time today updating my resume, I actually laughed when I opened my chumash about thirty minutes ago and discovered that it opens with our ancestors getting out of Dodge. (so to speak)

Then I started checking out the commentaries, and according to Rashi and Ramban, though the quickest and easiest route from Egypt to Israel was northeast, along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, because it was inhabited by the Philistines who were “war-like” our people would lose heart and head back to slavery. Since the journey back to Egypt would seem so easy at that point, returning would be the path of least resistance and that was hardly the point. However, in the very next verse we are told the children of Israel were armed R’ Bachya raises the question of why a people under the protection of God would need to arm themselves, and that does seem a fair question, however, Rashi interprets the word vachamooshim as coming from the same root as chomesh (fifth), implying that only one fifth of the Jews actually left Egypt, the rest being unprepared to adopt a new life as God’s people. Rashi tells us they died during the plague of darkness so the Egyptians would not see that Jews, as well as they, were losing their lives.

As those of you who have read my first few blogs know, although my life is frustrating me to no end right now, I am hardly “in the narrow straights of my own mitzrayim”.

Still, I am struck by what my life and these verses do have in common.

I think it is in the very least ironic that Pharaoh claimed concern at the outset that these folks would rise up against him (military-style) and then here God is concerned that they are so entirely brow-beaten that even though they are armed and even though God is with them they will lack the confidence necessary to travel through the land of the Philistines.

I think I come across to most people as fairly strong-willed, opinionated, and self-confident. I used to be. I think I also seem like someone who would just pick up and move if that’s what I wanted. I used to do that, too.

From the time I was 10 – 18 I moved at least every other year. From 18-25 I lived in 7 states and 2 other countries. Then I moved to where I live now for law school, and although I have lived in 4 different places here they have all been in the same city. I have been here since August 1999.

Even though I want to move on, I want to live somewhere warmer, I want to find a job that doesn’t just keep me really busy doing stuff that I know matters to other people and is meaningful big-picture but a job that feels like a worthwhile application of my time and the abilities that are specific to me . . . I know if I encounter a “war” along the way, it’ll be only too easy this time to turn back. I know because I have been turning back before even starting out for months.

I have not left a place that was familiar to me since I was 10. I loved that place.
It was a farm in southern Missouri. We had two ponds, 17 horses (Arabians), chickens (from whom I collected eggs), a sunflower garden (really, a big area in the field behind our house in which we grew gorgeous sunflowers and then had to beat the birds to the seeds), a smaller vegetable garden that had a lot of chili peppers and other vegetables my mom and I would can in the fall, a dry creek where I’d hang out with turtles, two gay male geese who would nest together every spring and never left our property – and then a flock that would come and go, a barn with a birthing stall that was rarely used (because the horses lived out in the fields and usually gave birth out there as well), dogs and cats, and I had almost talked my mom into letting me get a goat when my parents decided to get divorced and my mom and I moved.

Rashi’s interpretation troubles me. Just because four-fifths of the people decided they could not leave Egypt when one-fifth + Moses, Miriam and Aaron had decided they were ready, why does it follow that they had to die there?

My mind goes in many directions regarding that line of thinking, but here is one of them:

We have to be able to articulate that there are just as many ways to be Jewish as there are Jews. Some people fast on Yom Kippur, some go to shul, and some work and go to school. That means some employers and teachers are going to say (every year), “Why do you need a variance/day off? So-and-so is Jewish and he/she will be here, why can’t you be?” I don’t think our way of observance is the measure of our value in the community, and I certainly don’t think any of us should die for those choices.

Or . . .

It just occurred to me . . . or is it that those four-fifths who wanted to leave but were stopped by fear, or inertia, or lack of faith were like dead in another way – stuck in the darkness of the plague, a darkness in which they could not see each other or themselves. When we are not open to the moment when something unknown but promising presents itself in our lives, have we become entrapped by our own lack of vision?

I’m clearly not being oppressed (although I find the weather here oppressive) and I believe the people I work for and with are people of good intention. However, I also feel myself becoming less and less of myself every month.

Some readers have suggested I seek out Orthodox learning opportunities, and others are correct that working in the Jewish community (Reform) means that the times for learning and celebrating are most of the time the same times as I am teaching and running programs. Additionally, while I hunger for more observance, I also want a world-view I have not found in more observant Jewish communities. I want female and male rabbis. I want gay weddings. Whatever the conclusion, I want to be able to question and discuss circumcision (I don’t have a son – but I know if, God willing, I ever do it’ll be a question I want to discuss). I want to be frustrated personally with patrilineal descent (for reasons I raised in an earlier post) and at the same time count my students who are children of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother among the Jewish community.

I want these things, but even more than I want them, I want a life I have not been able to find where I am.

In truth, I am well-armed. I don’t want to take the long way around.

26 January 2009

Does Pediatric Judaism Make Us An Orphan People?

"Pharaoh said to them, 'Go, worship the Lord your G-d! Who are the ones to go?' Moses replied, 'We will all go, young and old: we will go with our sons and daughters, our flocks and herds; for we must observe the Lord's festival.'" Exodus 10: 8-9. (Bo)

Why does Moses emphasize young and old? The Etz Hayim Torah and commentary (without providing a specific citation) reads, "One commentator states, 'because no celebration is complete without children.' A second adds, 'a child without a parent is an orphan, but a nation without children is an orphan people.'"

[I will note here: whatever the import to Moses, Pharaoh does not allow the women or the children to go, only the men - although apparently all of them. He interprets "young and old" as an indication that Moses and Aaron are bent on mischief and have no intention to return after three days.]

I want to focus on the words of the commentator - even though I don't know who it is or whether these words are exact because I have heard such things before in our community. I question what it is about the presence of children that completes celebrations for us.

Please do not misunderstand, I agree with the assertion. I love children (of all ages although for some reason I find 8 year old girls rather challenging) and have worked with and celebrated with Jewish children from birth through college age. When I graduated from law school, I did not go to my graduation ceremony (which was on Shabbat morning) and instead on Sunday afternoon rented a park so that my students and their families (all from a supplemental religious school program) could celebrate with me and my friends. My favorite law school graduation gift was framed artwork with the quotation from Sanhedrin that "one who teaches another's child Torah is as one who gave birth to the child." (My second favorite was a guitar, which I sadly still cannot play.)

My question this week is: should our celebrations begin with children - or be completed with children? In other words, should our celebrations of Jewish holidays and of Judaism be focused entirely on children as are so many of the Sukkot, Chanukah, Tu B'Shevat, Purim, Shavuot and other communal celebrations and observances I have experienced, or should they be focused on adults and then intentfully designed to include children? While Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are primarily mindful of adults, with congregations creating children's programming appropriate for children and teens, it seems to me that most other holidays in the our community are celebrated by and for kids at the indulgence of their parents. If I were a child, with the perspective I think most children have, I think Judaism must look horrible for adults. As an adult, you get to pray and fast . . . unless you are celebrating with kids.

I suspect that observation is less true in the Orthodox community, and within the Conservative movement I'm certain it depends on the congregation. However, in the world in which I am living and working, havdallah is usually made only at camp and on Shabbatonim, few if any people have Tu B'Shevat seders at home and the one at our congregation is focused very much on the attention span of the children, our Shavuot celebration centers entirely around our 10th graders to the point that few people in our community even realize Shavuot is a holiday and Confirmation is not. Purim is not an adult party, it is a carnival. Sukkot if acknowledged at all is about children making decorations.

I believe I feel this focus on children even more strongly because I don't have any children of my own. Although I am the age of many of the parents, and although I am part of the team creating the celebrations and observances for the children, I am not bringing children with me. Therefore, when I am at a Tu B'Shevat seder planned and run by someone else I am very aware that all of the things I hunger for in an observance of Tu B'Shevat are missing. I want an adult-level intellectual discussion of Jewish text and Jane Goodall's Harvest of Hope. I want to be able to pause in the seder where questions of Jewish mysticism naturally arise and question whether it is possible to find the mystical in Judaism without it feeling too 'new-agey' to those of us who usually find ourselves connected through more cerebral paths. I want to drink wine from an organic, bio-diverse vinyard at the seder, and learn about Rashi's vinyards in France. I want to do all of this with special 'nut-free' tables for the children with allergies, and coloring pages, and cups with seeds to plant, and music and a room designated for kids to play in while the adults who love and adore them (including those of us who didn't bring them) celebrate as adults.

So which comes first?

Moses says, "young and old" - placing children first. The commentator says a people without children is an orphan people - seemingly also placing the children first.

And yet . . .

What happens to children who only ever experience Jewish celebrations as children? What happens when children watch the adults in their community dress us for the Purim carnival, but never hear them discussing the details of the story with any interest, never hear Esther confronting the king compared to women in the United States fighting for the right to petition the government (literally for the right to write or sign petitions) or the right to vote? The women of the American Anti-Slavery Society quoted text from Megillat Esther when they fought for the right to fight against slavery. What happens when children see adult secular life as a time to read newspapers, go out for dinner, stay up late, but don't see an adult Jewish life that exists without children.

I think a few things happen.

I think as these Jewish children grow up and become teenagers, they decide many of the Jewish things they did as children are irrelevant to them as teens and they quit participating.

I think as these Jewish children become Jewish adults who are in college, grad school, or their first job they see no reason to seek our Jewish life or Jewish celebration. After all, until you have children, you are irrelevant at many (some days I'd go as far as to say most) Jewish communal events. Not only are you constantly asked why you don't and when you will have children, you always get a place on the sidelines. Sometimes you are asked to help entertain or educate young children, but most of the time you are nearly invisible. The event is designed with a focus on the children and on the needs of the people who brought them.

I think as those Jewish adults spend more and more years of our lives coming to Jewish celebrations that have nothing to do with us . . .

Well, maybe I'm alone in this one, so I'll be specific:

I have become resentful. I was never a child in the Jewish community. I grew up an only Jewish kid on a farm in Missouri where my community looked more like Charlotte's (as in Charlotte's Web) than like the lives of the children I work with who live in an urban area and belong to a synagogue (and probably also the JCC). I got involved with a synagogue when I was 17, by my own choice, and went to a college with a small Jewish population where I spent significant time figuring out how to create Jewish life on campus. Once I graduated, well, I've moved around a lot, but I've found a niche for myself in every community in which I've lived - usually as a teacher. And yet, in each one, it is clear to me that until I am at least 20 years older than I am now, the focus will be on my peers who have children and on their children.

I know I am not the only person my age who is Jewish, single, and who does not (hopefully- yet) have children.

However at Jewish community celebrations, I am often the only person in her 30s who is Jewish, single, and doesn't have children in the room.

I have been frustrated by that reality, and yet also understood that we serve the demographic that is there.

On the other hand, are we becoming an orphan people? With so many more Jewish adults unaffiliated than affiliated, with so many teens off doing other things more interesting and relevant to them than Jewish observance, with so many Jewish adults in our 20s and 30s seeking things outside the Jewish community to find belonging and meaning in our lives . . .

Perhaps one of the best guarantors for the future of the Jewish people is providing inspiration, education, meaning, community, and more for our adults and then bringing our children along with us so that our children can see the future that is their inheritance. After all, we do not raise our Jewish children to be Jewish children . . . we raise our children to, G-d Willing, become Jewish adults.

Either way, Moses doesn't get to bring the women and children out of Egypt in these verses, and later (10:24) when Pharaoh offers to let him take the women and the children leaving only the flocks behind Moses won't leave without the flocks. We arrive at the 10th plague, and at the instruction that Moses is to speak to the whole community of Israel to explain how to prepare their homes and themselves for the night they are to leave Egypt and how to observe and celebrate this sacred occasion for all time (12:21-27).

I think it's worth noting that the instruction is for everyone - young, old, parents, children, adults who do not have children, and the adult children who have elderly parents to care for . . . the whole community.

When Moses goes to the elders and tells them what they must do, he also says, "And when your children ask, 'what do you mean by this rite?' you shall say, 'It is the passover sacrifice to the Lord, because G-d passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when G-d smote the Egyptians, but saved our houses.'" (12:27)

Moses is speaking with the elders, not with every Jewish parent. Certainly, some would have had grown children. Some may have not had children. When Moses said, "your children" did he mean 'your own children' or did he mean 'the children of the Israelites'.

I think it was the latter.

Even though we are supposed to (according the the Haggadah's description of the 4 children - or traditionally the 4 sons) teach each child according to his or her ability and developmental level, we will be able to do that effectively only if as adults we are engaged and have an understanding of Judaism at our own level as well.

Torah cannot live in the words in the scroll, just as Torahs cannot dance without our legs.

Here is what I am asking for:

While I create opportunities for our Jewish children, youth, and teens, I would love for someone else to be creating dynamic, age-appropriate Jewish learning and celebrating opportunities for me.

15 January 2009

Red or Green?

I mean salsa . . . or chili . . . I once lived in New Mexico. You can get that question a lot there.

I haven't had any really good chili, or salsa, in awhile. Living away from the Southwest for so long, I'm not sure I could really take it anyway.

Instead, I've just been going out dancing. The thing is, there is a catch.

When I lived in New Mexico, I didn't learn salsa in lessons, I just went out dancing and tried to follow - and more or less I kept up. Where I live now, many people take lessons, and it feels more formal. It's also a lot colder outside, so I bring a change of clothing and change in the bathroom - and that feels a little on the odd side as well. Oh - and shoes - because it's hard to dance in snow boots.

That isn't even the most challenging part, though . . . the most challenging part is after many, many years of having absolutely no issue whatsoever with crossing a room and asking a guy to dance - I just don't want to have to right now. So while I stand near a tall table thinking about dancing, watching other people dance, I'm not dancing so much.

No salsa of any kind.

Because no one is coming to ask me to dance.

And I'm realizing, no one ever did. I always asked first. I always put myself out there, knowing rejecting was possible, and being okay with that.

I've been thinking about it all day (because I went out dancing last night, but did not actually dance) . . .

Another friend of mine has pointed out this is not a likely way to meet Jewish men anyway.

13 January 2009

What's in a Name?

Here I am, being anonymous for the first time in my life and all I can think about is names.

Maybe it's partly because of all of these pregnant/birthing friends.
One baby was born 11 days ago. He has a Hebrew name and an English name. Another was born Sunday, she is Grace Katherine (she's Catholic). And we are still waiting on 3 more. Yes, I have a lot of pregnant friends. If pregnancy were a contagious condition I'd be much more likely to have a baby myself one of these days!

I was given only English names as a baby, but both first and middle were named for grandfathers' Hebrew names. Then in college I was given Ariel. I 'named' my grandmother Naomi Ruth, and just last fall after Simchat Torah I helped my mother choose her Hebrew name, Na'amah. My grandfather is Ya'acov. G-d willing I have children someday, I would like for them to have one name, and have it be a Hebrew name. Of course, if I adopt, I might have a child with a birth name and a Hebrew name - if that is the case (and I hope so, I have always wanted to adopt) I have often wondered what the Torah says about birth names and adoptive names. Turns out - this is the week for an answer.

Verse 15: The king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives. The name of one of them was Shifrah, and the name of the other was Puah.

I read today that Yocheved – Shifrah – shin fey resh – means to make beautiful – when a new baby would be born, she would clean it up and make it beautiful. Miriam – Puah – would make sounds to the newborn to make it happy. It says G-d gave them names based on the chesed each did. My question is (and I have not been able to find an answer) Did only the Torah (G-d) call them Shifra and Puah, or did also Pharaoh, or did only the women? Or the babies? Who called these women this? I don't have any answers. If anyone can find anything, I would love to learn it.

Later . . .

Verse 1: A man of the house of Levi went and married the daughter of Levi.
Verse 2: The woman conceived and bore a son. She saw that he was [exceptionally] good, and she kept him hidden for three months.

About this section I learned something new today. That seeing that he was "good" actually meant that she (the unnamed Yocheved) named him "Tov" (or Toviah or Tevye). According to some sources, Moshe actually had a name given to him by his birth parents as well as by (also unnamed) Batya - Pharaoh's daughter.

Verse 10: When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh's daughter, and he became her son. She named him Moshe, for she said, "I drew him from the water."

We are told this is evidence of how much G-d loved Batya because we call Moshe by the name Batya gave him and how it expressed his character. His whole life – he himself drew other people out of trouble.

Batya has always been one of my favorite people. I love that she defied her father. I love that she was a rebel with a cause. I love that she reached her arm out and did the impossible. I love that she could have been comfortable in the palace and had her maids bring her water, and instead she went down to the water where there was death and horror just in case maybe there was someone there she could save. I love this woman. I love her as a person and I love her as a mother.

I love that she raised her son in a palace and managed to also teach him all of the values he would need to be among our people living in the desert. I love that she paid wages to a slave. I love that she spoke with respect to Miriam. I think she is fantastic.

Prior to today, I never questioned her naming Moshe.

But then I came across that verse - and OF COURSE Yocheved thought her baby was good. Every mother who wants to have a child sees her baby and thinks he or she is good, right? Why would she need to tell us that? Why would the Torah need to tell us that? What was really going on over there?

Rashi, Ramban, and assorted others jumped right into the discussion and cleared things up . . .
she named him they said - Tov, Toviah . . . or, like the milkman, Tevye.

I have never thought of naming one of my children "Moses" or "Moshe" - it always seemed like a lot of pressure to me.

I have, however, thought of naming a girl Batya - even with the pressure, what a great name!

Tevye sounds like an old man to me (now, why would I have that image I wonder!) . . . but Toviah I like, and perhaps someday I will have an opportunity to raise a child to whom I did not give birth. Some other woman will have conceived, carried, and delivered him. And she will have named him, and it might be the name he is known by - and knows himself by. Perhaps for him, a Hebrew name like Toviah would be most appropriate. The name that means no matter what he is called by the rest of the world, in my house, as my child, I will always see in him what is good.

06 January 2009

Waiting for a Call

A friend of mine is, Gd Willing, any minute going to call and ask me to come and stay with her son (who just turned two) so she and her husband can go to the hospital. I'm ready. I have a car seat in my car. I have my phone charged up. I'm waiting.

I could be waiting awhile. She's not actually due until January 16th, but no one (doctors included) thinks it'll be that long. Well, except for me. People are busy making guesses about dates and gender and all sorts of things. I've been told I'm not much fun. I don't like playing games where babies are concerned. I just want everyone to make it back home healthy. It's not that I don't care if it's a boy or a girl, it's that I really don't care. I've had a few friends now have really difficult deliveries and I don't care when, or what . . . just everyone safe and healthy.

While I am waiting, I am going to keep studying Torah. It's my favorite thing to do on my day off . . . and again the disclaimer, this is no article . . .just musings, thinkings, and learning. I'd love to know what other people see, learn, and what questions are raised. . .

Through my eyes, the most apparent meaning of most of the Torah comes through as a parenting lesson. I have been wanting children since I was sixteen (at least, that's when I actively started thinking about it), so my worldview is very much shaped by my focus on children - and although I've been a teacher (yes, I've seen Sanhedrin 19b), and a foster parent, a nanny, a god parent, and am the guardian of a few of my friends children I still am not actually a parent. I know better than most that it's different.

I have decided to spend a little more time writing about vayechi. My study partner and I spent another two hours with the text this morning. (have I explained that she is Orthodox and we study on the phone?) This morning, thankfully, I am not distracted.

So, in Verse 29 we read, The days of Yisrael's death drew near, and he called for his son Yoseif, and said to him, "If I have found favor in your eyes, please, place your hand under my thigh; that you will deal kindly and truthfully with me. Please, do not bury me in Egypt. Verse 30: [But rather] let me lie with my fathers. Carry me out of Egypt, and bury me in their grave." He [Yoseif said], "I will do as you say." Verse 31: He [Yaakov] said, "Swear to me," and he swore to him. Yisrael prostrated himself at the head of the bed.

My question here is, why didn’t Jacob just ask Joseph – why make him take an oath?

Here is some of what I found: Rabbi Noson Weiz wrote in The Body and the Self

"The commentators explain that Jacob made this request to Joseph because he was the only one among his children who had the power necessary to carry it out. He foresaw that the Egyptians would resist allowing him to be buried elsewhere, and it would need the offices of a very powerful person like Joseph to ensure compliance with Jacob's desire to be buried in Israel in the Cave of the Machpelah. This is also the reason Jacob made Joseph take an oath to comply with his wish. It is not that he didn't trust him. He wanted to provide Joseph with a powerful argument with which to confront Pharaoh. He could sincerely tell Pharaoh that he was bound by his sacred oath to carry out Jacob's final request. In the face of the oath Pharaoh could not withhold permission. Indeed we find that Pharaoh specifically refers to the oath:
And Pharaoh said, "Go up and bury your father as he made you swear to do." (Genesis 50:6)"


It is a simple enough question, and I did not have to dig very far for an answer that satisfied me. Still, it got me thinking. I work with teens. How often (often!) have I suggested to them that if they don't want to go to a party where parents aren't present, or where there will be drinking or drugs or something else going on they don't want to be part of, but they feel they cannot say that to their friends - even if they don't have time to consult with their parents before giving an answer they can justifiably respond that their parents do not allow them to go. They can say they have promised their parents that they will not go to a party of that desciption. One student told me her parents would encourage her to go to a party with drinking (in high school) because they believe it is an important part of social development, but she still did not want to go. I told her instead of saying her parents wouldn't let her go, she could say that I would find out and she would be in "so much trouble" with me. These other kids from her public school have no idea who I am or why she cares what I think, but if she needed my "parental" back up she had it.

There is a big difference, of course, because Jacob did actually make Joseph make an oath. I am not wondering what the rules are about truthfullness in the above situation for my teens (who are my students) or for the children we parent. If teens need "back up" and don't have it in the moment, is it wrong or right for them to say that their parents said something they may not have actually said? (such as, you may not go to a party where there is alcohol and drugs.)

Pharaoh is persuaded not by Joseph "knowing" it is what Jacob wanted, but by the fact that Joseph took an actual oath.

Given all of the pressure our teens live with and how often they are faced with choices about which their parent(s) have never weighed in - this parsha seems instructional. Maybe Jacob knew Pharaoh would likely put up a fight if Joseph's commitment was anything less than an oath, so he planned ahead for a time when he would not be there to help Joseph. Perhaps as parent(s) (or guardians, god parents, foster parents, etc) we should do the same. Joseph didn't have to just have a vague knowledge of what his father wanted him to do, Jacob told him straight out.

Jacob had personal experience with unclear direction as well - after all, he watched his brother Esau try to please his parents over and over never really knowing what they wanted from him while for Jacob it was always made clear.

Of course, I am also an adult child - as was Joseph - and whiel I know what my mother wants Gd Forbid, I don't know if it's in writing. I am reminded, I should check on that.

The other place I was struck was another reference I've never noticed before about Asnath.

Ch. 48 Verse 1: After these events, someone said to Yoseif, "Behold your father is ill." He took his two sons with him, Menasheh and Ephraim.

My question is: who is the 'vayomer' referring to? – who said it? Rashi tells us there are those to say that Ephraim was often in Jacob’s presence, so when Jacob took ill, Ephraim went to Egypt to tell Joseph. He was with his grandfather learning Torah all the time, and therefore he noticed as his granfather became ill. We are also told the grammar is indicative of deeper meaning. If something is news you never knew before – it would be “and he spoke” - vayagid -instead of vayomer – "and he said". Why? Because apparently vayagid is the form used when we are startled by something or learning it for the first time. If Jacob was well the whole time and suddenly took ill – then we’d expect vayagid.

But I seem to recall somewhere the Talmud tells us Jacob was the first one in the world to become sick before he died and before then there was no weakness before death. Whoever this messenger was had been by Jacob all the time and saw him becoming ill because he says vayomer, and not vayagid.

About why Ephraim was the one who knew Joacob, Rabbi Shraga Simmons writes: "The commentaries explain that the order is based on how these two brothers spent the majority of their time. Ephraim spent his days learning Torah with his grandfather, Jacob. Menashe, meanwhile, served as executive assistant to his father Joseph, the prime minister of Egypt."

My question: Still, why was it covered up from our learning it?
Could it be hidden because later we’ll find out that Ephraim’s descendents are Jerobaum and also Joshua and Jerobaum is bad news?

Verse 2: It was told to Yaakov, saying, "Behold, your son, Yoseif, has come to you." Yisrael gathered his strength and sat up in bed.

My question again: Who told? Rashi says once again, the speaker is Ephraim. (although there are opinions that disagree because then Ephraim should have said, "my father" and not "Yoseif).

Even more perplexing is Jacob's question:

Verse 8: Yisrael saw Yoseif's sons, and he said, "Who are these?"
Verse 9: Yoseif said to his father, "These are my sons, whom El-him has given me in this [place]." He [Yaakov] said, "Please take them to me, and I will bless them."

My question: How is it that Yacov doesn’t recognize the grandchildren?

Rashi explains it was not a matter of him not recognizing them. Yacob was already familiar with Yoseif’s sons. By asking, he couldn’t have been asking who they actually were. What he was asking was from what marriage these children came. According to something my study partner mentioned last week (I don't remember the citation) Joseph also took out the klaf from Yakov that had been given to Asnath to prove that she was of the house of Jacob. According to Rashi, after coming to Egyot, Jacob had not met the mother of these children. When he said, these are the children Hashem gave me “in this place” – it was so Jacob would know who these children are and who their mother is. The commentary continues to explain that Joseph showed Jacob the document by which he married his wife. Jacob sees the future and knows that eventually Jerobaum is going to come from this child – and Jacob asks, is this because of a problem with this marriage? Yoseif says no. And then – as soon as Joseph answers his father, right away, Jacob says bring them to me and I will bless them.

My question: How is it that Jacob's concerns are all alleviated by this brief exchange?

Verse 10: Yisrael's eyes were heavy with age, and he could not see. He [Yoseif] brought them near to him, and he kissed them and hugged them. Verse 11: Yisrael said to Yoseif, "I have never thought to see your face, and behold El-him has even allowed me to see your offspring."

It seems according to toe Chofetz Chaim, this hugging and kissing had a complete connection – and it was a specific type of hugging and kissing. In Hebrew – it is TO them, toward them, and not just kissed them.

Here are my study notes:

According to the Kli Yakar – Jacob knew about what was going to happen in the future, and therefore we wonder how he was able to whole heartedly give the blessing. He just wanted to make sure the bad stuff in the future wouldn’t happen because of the marriage. Once he ascertained that, he said, “bring them onto me” and he said you could learn from me – from my self – why? Because my father Isaac was blessed for my sake. Bring them here upon me – you can learn from me – that HaShem didn’t withhold blessings from Isaac for Jacob’s sake – even though Esau would also be coming from Isaac. Let them be just like me – the same way that Hashem blessed Isaac for generations to come – for Jacob, even though Esau would come, in the very same way, we’re going to work with the present time, and I am giving a blessing for the time that is now – because right now they are all righteous, and I’m not going to have any feelings about the future. And he blessed them that day, according to how they spiritually were that day. Achshav tzadikim - NOW they are righteous.

Again, I have my students in mind. It is hard sometimes to remember that I should encounter them each as they are when they are with me. They have made mistakes and wrong choices in the past, and they certainly will again in the future, but my focus it seems should be on who they are and how they are achshav . . . in this moment. (It's not our task to complete the work . . . kind of . . . maybe . . . ) At the same time, if I see one headed down a really troublesome path, it seems unlikely that I'm supposed to just let them go down it. If Jacob's concern was Jereboam, well, he wasn't even born yet (not for a long time) . . .and a lot could happen between this moment with Ephraim and that moment with the split in the kingdom.

And, of course, all of this brings me back to my central question:

Where is my b'shert and where are my children?
Who are mine to bless, and who will (Gd Willing when I'm well past 120) bury me . . . who will take care of my bones, and who will say kaddish for me?

I heard this week about a shiva at which there were many people, many children and grandchildren, but the only person who could read the Hebrew (and no one bothered to read the transliteration) of the kaddish was the person leading. There were more than 10 Jews in the room, they had a minyan, but the man leading (who was not a relative) was the only one saying the kaddish. Just hearing about this situation made me sad.

My heart aches for Israel right now - and, truly, always. And yet I don't know how I feel about the relationship between the Diaspora and Israel, and I don't know what I think about my responsibility to live there. I don't feel compelled to ask that my bones be brought there. But I have Jewish bones, and a Jewish soul, and both want Jewish children . . .

and none of that is an answer . . .

it's really all part of a very, very big question . . .

05 January 2009

Blessings for Grandchildren

As I begin to write, I am completely distracted. I was going to write more about the text, but I don't have the patience right now - even though I've been sitting here studying Torah.

I can't seem not to note that I am sitting in a coffee shop a few tables away from two young women. These women are gossiping (it's not talking, it's gossiping) about weddings and engagements and expectations. One is recently married, and she - all knowing - is talking about expectations of rings and how to make sure he gets the right one, how to find the right dress and how to talk the dressmaker into a year of payments if necessary so you can get married in the dress of your dreams (and how anything more than $2,600 is just simply too much money for a young couple who also wants parents to contribute to a down payment for a house) . . . the other woman just started dating someone right before the New Year, but she just knows he is the one . . . it has been going on and on . . .

These women are easily a decade younger than I am.

I have been trying all week to look around my life and see what I do have. In Under the Tuscan Sun the protagonist realizes that she has everything she asked for: home, family, sunlight . . . and then an adorable American writer shows up - just for her. I won't even pretent I'm driven by higher motives. What I want, what I've always wanted, are home, family, and sunlight (the book and movie both hit a nerve . . . not sure if it was the same nerve exactly, but nerves were hit) . . . I live in a place with far too little sunlight - which is probably the easiest thing to do something about. I've tried for 9 years to make a home for myself here . . .with some success . . .
as for family, I have a lot of other people's children (I work with teens) . . .
So anyway, all week I've been trying to think about what I do have, but everywhere I go - like those words that once you learn them you hear them everywhere - all I seem to see and hear are women 10 years younger than I am talking about weddings and pregnancies.

I think that also might have something to do with the other things in my life - for example my FOUR pregnant friends (and all of their very happy parents).

On Shabbat we read about Joseph getting his family settled in Goshen with himself, Asnath, and their two children. This week we read about Jacob blessing his sons and grandsons.

I also value children and grandchildren. I would like to have both.
Last fall I took a 100 hour class to become certified in training faith-based comprehensive sex educators. During one of the classes we spent about 20 minutes reflecting silently - journaling - on what our focus is (personally) when we think about our primary relationship. Everyone else in the class was either partnered or married, and I was the only person who is Jewish. When I started my journal, I found myself writing as a grandmother - thinking about sitting with my husband and watching our grandchildren sleep on our livingroom floor. I couldn't keep writing what felt so much like a work of fiction and not of hope. After 10 minutes I had to stop and go for a walk.

Lately, when I read the Torah I feel like it is full of unreasonable expectations.