A Place to Go – Parshat Noach 5778

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As the parents of two young children, Duncan and I have had our fair share of conversations about the use of space in our house, from the perspectives of safety, storage, and purpose. What areas are safe for the kids? Where do we need to be more careful? How much space is allotted for toys, and how much space might be designated as “parents only”? We try hard to make sure Shiri and Matan know that they each have places to go in our house when they’re ready to play and also when they’re feeling overwhelmed, tired, or just need some downtime. We also try to reserve adult space so Duncan and I can enjoy those few minutes of respite and relaxation when we can get them.

The need for room to spread out, be yourself, and let loose is a basic human desire and one that was felt well before our modern, technology-fueled times. This week we read Parshat Noach, which tells of the evil impulses running rampant in society, Noah’s building of the Ark, a covenant with God through a rainbow, and later the building of a tower to approach God.

Throughout the whole ordeal, Noah is the man in charge. He alone receives God’s call to build the Ark and to put his family and pairs of animals on this vessel. And, when the flood waters have subsided, he is charged with repopulating the earth as part of the covenant with God. If anyone needed a place to retreat, a space to call his own, it was Noah.

However, when you think about it, it’s God who expresses the big emotions here out of frustration with the degenerate society. Needing a space to let loose and simply be free of those God-sized emotions that go along with caring for others, the world becomes God’s room to “scream” into, and the flood is the ultimate temper tantrum.

Creating a place where you can feel both free to let go or safe to go into yourself is part of the framework for a healthy family and even a healthy society. Reading this parshah is always a reminder that it helps to be aware of our emotional responses, or at least aware enough to take a breather for our own sake and for the sake of those around us. It’s during this Torah portion that God goes back to a blank canvas, and in the same way for us, taking away those distractions and simply giving ourselves room to breathe makes all the difference.

 

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Organized Chaos – Parshat Bereshit 5778

organized-chaos

I have an organizational system that I’m guessing many of you are familiar with. It’s often referred to as organized chaos. I have piles and piles organized throughout my workspace, and to the untrained eye they might just look like piles, but to me it makes complete sense. I have my “deal with right now” pile and my “recycle me” pile. I have a “for Duncan to deal with” pile and a “never look at again but don’t want to throw out” pile. Sometimes the items get moved from pile to pile until they end up in their permanent home (either an actual folder or the recycling bin) and my life feels organized and manageable. Every once in a while I get fed up with the size of the piles, go through them all, and whittle them down to the bare essentials. And then the process starts all over again.

Organized chaos is not a new management system. In fact, this week’s Torah portion, Bereshit, originates this concept. As the Torah begins anew we start with the very act of creation itself. We begin again with our familiar story and move quickly from the days of creation through the narrative of Adam and Eve in the beautiful Garden of Eden to the first time someone challenged God. From there we witness the first explosive sibling rivalry with Cain and Abel. The end then careens us forward in time to the line of Noah.

As the story of creation begins, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was Tohu Va’Vohu.” A modern translation could read this as “organized chaos.” When I read this I always picture God looking around at various piles trying to figure out what goes where. Sort of like the sorcerer in Disney’s Fantasia, I imagine God moving a wand around, organizing the heavens, the earth, the waters, the plants, and the animals and people until they are in just the right place to work together in harmony.

So often we think of God as being this perfect entity who fashions a perfectly deliberate creation with everything in the right place and placed in an orderly fashion, yet here we are reading the first few sentences of our Torah, telling us that even God has piles all around.

This notion of “organized chaos” is comforting to me. It’s a little counterintuitive to think of comfort in chaos, but life is full of chaotic moments. Whether it is my piles all around or running from activity to activity, it’s easy to feel like the world is whizzing by, However, we read Parshat Bereshit this morning and are reminded that from the chaos we create order. Just please excuse the mess.

 

Body of Water – Yom Kippur 5778

when-it-rains

I’ve been staring at the edge of the water

Long as I can remember, never really knowing why

I wish I could be the perfect daughter

But I come back to the water, no matter how hard I try

Ready to sing with me yet?

Every turn I take, every trail I track

Every path I make, every road leads back

To the place I know where I cannot go

Where I long to be

If you haven’t heard the soundtrack to Moana, I highly recommend it. The music is by Lin-Manuel Miranda, so what’s not to like? Sadly I haven’t seen Hamilton yet, but if it earns me any street cred, I’ve been a fan since In the Heights.

When it comes to the movie, I was late to the Moana fan club. I don’t usually succumb to the movie musical hysteria at all, but with a four-year-old in the house, it was inevitable. And surprise – I found myself deeply moved by the lyrics and the storyline, especially the theme of the power, mysteriousness, and beauty of water. The ocean is actually a silent character in the movie. If you want to compare it to other Disney films, water plays sort of a Jiminy Cricket/Fairy Godmother type of role. You might describe it as a gentle, guiding conscience.

This got me thinking. Few things symbolize Yom Kippur quite like our relationship – as Jews – with water. Water is actually used in many ways in Judaism, from something as simple as ritual hand washing, to something as powerful as the Israelites crossing the Red Sea, marking their transformation from a tribe of slaves into a free people.

However, the two most prominent uses of water deal with our rebirth into a new stage of life via the mikveh, and our physical body’s final earthly experience with taharah, the ceremonial cleansing of a body before burial. Death and rebirth. In a sense, they are opposites, but this cycle is the essence of Yom Kippur.

In Jewish tradition, the body (met or meta) is never left alone from the moment of death until burial. Shmira is the ritual guarding of the met/meta during this period. In ancient times, the guarding of the body served as physical protection from predators and desecration. In our day, when physical protection is not as necessary, shmira serves the spiritual purpose of guarding the soul. It has been said that when the soul, neshama, departs from the body it has been united with for so many years, it yearns to return to the body, and so must be comforted.

In Jewish tradition, we come into the world pure and are to leave it pure. Tahara is a purification ritual for both the body and soul (neshama) of the deceased. We know this practice goes back at least to its codification in 1626, and the essential form of the tahara is similar throughout the world. It’s performed by three to four members of the Chevra Kadisha  or Chevra Kavod HaMet in our community who are the same gender as the person who has died.

It’s a very intimate process. After initially addressing the deceased by name, the designees then wash the body from head to toe as corresponding verses from the Song of Songs are read. For example, as the head is washed, one recites:

His head is like the most fine gold; his heaps of curls are black as a raven.

And as the body is washed, one recites:

Her body is as polished ivory overlaid with sapphires.

Next is the pouring of purification water over the body, preceded by a quote from Rabbi Akiva, which in part says:

And I will pour upon you pure water and you will be purified of all your defilements and from all your abominations I will purify you.

Using pitchers, water is poured in a continuous stream over the entire body, while simultaneously saying, tahora hee (she is pure) or tahora hoo (he is pure). The met/meta is then carefully dried with cloth and, following a concluding prayer, is ready to be dressed in the ritual garments.

These acts of tahahra ensure that each individual is treated as equal and the same. And there is a striking parallel to our experience on Yom Kippur. Though we live on and mature and grow older, the yearly cycle dictates that the previous year must, in some way, die. TV writer Megan Amram always uses the same joke on Twitter every secular New Year’s Eve. It says “R.I.P 2016” and then in parentheses, in classic headstone style, “2016 to 2016.”

Kol Nidre is, in a sense, the final purification of the year as we wrap ourselves in traditional garments and use our beautiful liturgy to cleanse and guard our souls.

Our other primary water-based ritual, immersion in the mikveh, has its own parallels to the holiday.

Ritual immersion is an ancient part of Jewish tradition, noted in the Torah and in later rabbinic commentaries. Today, there are only a few cases where immersion is still designated as a mitzvah, or an act required by Jewish law: for those converting to Judaism, for brides, and for women observing niddah, which is the practice of immersing monthly following menstruation.

But the mikveh has also been used for other purposes throughout Jewish history. For example, it was used by men prior to Shabbat and other holidays and by women in the ninth month of pregnancy. A mikveh is so important that we just built a beautiful, new community mikveh as a partnership between the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland and the Oregon Board of Rabbis for our community called Rachel’s Well.  

Rabbi Akiva in Mishnah Yoma says:

Happy are you, Israel! Who is it before whom you are able to cleanse yourself and become renewed? And who is it that renews you? It is your God, as it is said: I will pour renewing water upon you and you shall be renewed. And it further says: O hope (mikveh) of Israel, O HaShem – just as a mikveh cleanses, so too does He, Holy One, blessed be He, cleanses Israel.

Mikveh is a fascinating Jewish ritual. It’s a relatively brief experience, yet it is intended to symbolize and even bring about profound change for the individual. The mikveh pool recalls the watery state that each of us knew before we were born; the ritual of entering and leaving mayim chayim, living waters, creates the time and space to acknowledge and embrace a new stage of life.

So too, Yom Kippur is a relatively brief moment in time, a short 25-hour blip in the year. Yet during this short time, the splendor of the liturgy and the heightened awareness from fasting are meant to bring about momentous change. We are reborn; our souls are refreshed. In a time when cleanses are still the rage, this is the ultimate cleanse, a cleansing of body and mind.

I could spend an entire sermon comparing death and rebirth in Judaism – there are seven steps into the mikveh and seven days of shiva, and in each case we are naked and vulnerable – but I keep coming back to this one aspect.

The funny thing is I am a terrible swimmer, yet I love being in and near water. You can tell from old home movies my mom has that I clearly loved bath time. Those will not be posted on the Neveh Shalom Facebook page, in case you’re curious.

Water has just always drawn me – except for my time in Dallas, every place I’ve lived has had relatively easy access to large bodies of water. It has been a source of calm, of comfort. Whether it’s a refreshing shower after a long walk or a summer rainstorm, I love it.

And, perhaps not so coincidentally, Yom Kippur has long been one of my favorite holidays. In both cases, there is something about the majesty and the power, both creative and destructive. In the case of water, you don’t have to reach any further back than the last few months, when we saw how destructive water and wind together can be. At the same time, water is essential to creation; we must have it to survive, and it’s one of the keys we look for to try to determine if there’s life elsewhere in the universe.

Yom Kippur, our day of atonement, is in its own way both creative and destructive. As we see the past year destroyed and put to rest, the new one is created. It is both uplifting, bringing us to the highest high of the year, and purposefully, excessively humbling.

May we use this brief moment in time to tap into – pun intended – the essence of the holiday. For this is our most naked and vulnerable celebration. There are no decorations on Yom Kippur. There is no sukkah, no etrog. No grogger, no spiel.  No dreidels, no candles, except for that of Yizkor, the flame of memory. There is only this moment right now, pure as water. G’mar hatima tova.

Loud Action, Not Silent Prayer

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4:30 a.m.

My 13-month-old cries out. Because of pain? A bad dream? I’ll never know for sure, but his cries pierced the air and I was jolted awake. I jumped up to comfort him, held him in my arms, kissed his soft cheek, and nursed.

Then while he was comforted, snuggled up close to me, I was jolted awake again. Apparently while we were having a peaceful moment before sunrise, the rest of the world was restless, startled, and inconsolable because of the darkness spread over us by yet another senseless act of gun violence.

Las Vegas, the bright light city, was dark.

We just finished the High Holiday season. We were just sitting in services, engaged in deep introspection on ourselves, wondering how we can change for the better in the coming year. We read Unetaneh Tokef (who will live and who will die), and as we read about the fire, water, wind, and earthquakes, the unrest, thirst, and hunger, we acted by collecting food and water to distribute to lessen the decree.

But when events like those in Las Vegas and Edmonton become commonplace, we have no choice but to add the decree “who by senseless gun violence and who by baseless hatred?” I sat in deep prayer for days working to find my better self, praying to God that the world would be a better place. Sadly, thoughts and prayers may be the first step, but they alone are not enough. It’s only with the full complement that any change is made.

Teshuva, tefillah, tzedakah ma’arivin et ro’ah ha’gezerah. “Repentance, prayer and giving will lessen the weight of the decree.” It is a trifecta that will make change.

Teshuva: we must return. We must identify the problem, express out loud the harm we’ve caused. Maimonides teaches that this is how teshuva is done. Today, we must stand up and stand strong and say out loud to anyone who will listen that we will not sit idly and watch senseless violence happen. We must not allow loose gun laws and loopholes to cause terror, loss of life, and heartbreak again. We must not let our elected leaders find rest until they move beyond “thoughts and prayers.” We must demand action of them and of ourselves.

Tefillah: we must pray, together as a community. Though it is not the solution itself, we must all turn inward to heal. In one voice we must cry out that this problem is beyond any one group, beyond any denomination, faith, or skin color, but a communal problem that our combined voices will work to solve.

Tzedakah: we must give. We must give of our time, our voices, our resources. Whether it is a donation to an organization working to end gun violence or one supporting those with mental illness, every giving act counts. We must give back to our communities that continue to support us through these dark days, and we must in turn support those who work towards bringing light.

5:10 a.m.

My baby is snuggled sweetly with his lovey. Safe, warm, and peaceful in his bed. I am not. I have been awakened from my slumber. I am agitated, alarmed, scared, and ready to scream at the top of my lungs. Together, let us switch from silent prayer to loud action. We must make our voices heard. We all must be wide awake.

Fidgety – Rosh Hashanah 5778

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I don’t know if you were aware, but there was a major ruling in Jewish law in May of this year. This may have significant implications regarding your Jewish observance, so I urge you to take note and give serious consideration to the gravity of this decision. This past May, rabbis at the Scientific and Technological Institute for Halacha in Jerusalem determined that fidget spinners do not violate the laws of Shabbat.

Stop the presses. Not the cider press, of course – that’s still happening downstairs, right now. This silent, yet still annoying toy that has become the bane of the PTA is just fine on Shabbat. The explanation is simple – except for the fidget spinners that light up, which are still not allowed – these little devices don’t require any electricity. They’re propelled by your own fingers, and ball bearings provide the smooth, frictionless spin.

You may ask, “Rabbi Eve, there are lots of legal responsa out there. Why do you care about this one?” The answer is because – legal ruling or not – Judaism doesn’t need fidget spinners. We had fidget spinners long before there was anything called a fidget spinner.

—–

I spend a lot of time in my d’vrei Torah and other outlets, like this sermon today, talking about experiencing and living Judaism. Is it any wonder? My masters degree is in experiential Jewish education. It is my mission to show and tell you that you need not be a rabbi to lead a hands-on Jewish life. So much of what we do is literally hands-on.

  • Touching and kissing a mezuzah.
  • Touching and kissing the Torah.
  • Immersion in the mikveh.

Using the light of the Havdalah candle on our fingernails to show that we’re close enough to the flame to distinguish different parts of our hands.

  • The shaking of the grogger.
  • The shaking of the lulav.

The list goes on. 

And of course there’s the ultimate and original Jewish fidget spinner, the tzitzit. Show of hands – is there anyone like me who recalls sitting in shul when you were little and playing with the tzitzit on your dad’s or grandfather’s tallit? It was only the dads and grandpas back then of course. I have vivid memories of braiding my Papa’s and Zayde’s tzitzit or being wrapped in them in the chilly sanctuary, quietly snoozing while the rabbi gave his sermon. Now that I’m older, I’m somehow both the rabbi and the parent in this story. Even as adults, our fingers naturally and mindlessly drift to those beautiful fringes, which are meant to serve as a reminder of the mitzvot through their knots and string.

There is something about a tactile experience that is strongly associated with learning and memory, and there are some fascinating studies exploring why this is true. Dr. David Linden, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins, published some of these findings in 2015 in a book called Touch: The Science of Hand, Heart, and Mind.

In his book, Dr. Linden explains some of the science behind our associations with touch, including the evolution of two distinct parallel pathways for processing the sense of touch. One pathway is responsible for the distinguishing characteristics of an object. Where is this object I’m touching? How much pressure is on it or is on me? What’s the texture of it? In other words, these are the facts about touch. The other pathway is for social and emotional context. This pathway activates the regions in the brain responsible for pleasure and pain and social bonding.

Both of these pathways give us signals about whatever it is we’re touching, and therefore, how we feel about something can affect how we feel something. The way language works is so interesting, isn’t it? How we feel about something can affect how we feel something.

Dr. Linden uses the example of someone putting an arm around your shoulder. It could be the exact same physical stimulation, but imagine the difference in how it feels when it’s a friend, a lover, your boss, someone you don’t really care for . . . in each case the context of the touch affects how that touch registers in your brain.

And the sensations and experiences can stay with us for a long time, especially when the movements are practiced and repeated. Has anyone played an instrument, then stopped for a while, and then years later picked it up again to have your fingers remember what to do seemingly without the help of your active memory? Our sense of smell is usually thought to be the most connected to memory, in that smells instantly and unmistakably trigger signals in our brains that match events and people and places. But our sense of touch is certainly connected intimately to us as well.

Back to the fidget spinner. So if it turns out all along we’ve had Jewish versions of things to occupy our fidgety hands, what can we gain from the groundbreaking ruling that fidget spinners are acceptable, albeit distracting on Shabbos? Perhaps we can learn from the symbolism of the toy more than from the toy itself.

When these little devices peaked in popularity, Chabad published a fun article on their website about finding meaning in fidget spinners. These are life lessons, cleverly viewed through the fidget spinner lens.

First, there’s the notion of momentum. Judaism reminds us that our job is to keep moving forward. Recall the blessings we give a child at birth and bar mitzvah: “May you be privileged to live a life of Torah, chuppah and ma’asim tovim.” We’re always looking forward to the next milestone, commitment, or experience in life. When you engage in community, in Torah, and in learning you find that you’re always in motion in some way.

But before the spinning starts, a fidget spinner needs a good nudge to get moving. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. A Jewish journey begins with a good, old fashioned nudge.

And here’s a fun one. Did you notice that most fidget spinners have three arms? It was King Solomon who noted that a three-stranded rope provides the strongest hold. Likewise, our sages noted that a three-legged stool is sturdiest. Al ha Torah, al ha avodah, v’al gemilut hasadim. The world stands on three things.

Maybe you see a theme here. There’s nothing magical about the toy itself. At the beginning of this craze, there were all these theories that fidget spinners were the answer to ADHD and even helped kids with autism. If they do help you or your child, that’s wonderful. But let’s be realistic; it’s a fad. However, what we do know is that movement is a part of who we are. Movement in general is what science has shown time and again to be beneficial for a wide range of emotional, developmental, and psychological issues. Gross motor activity, exercise, some type of hands-on approach – that’s what is making the difference.

You could say the same about the countless examples we’ve seen over the last few weeks of people responding to Harvey and Irma and the wildfires here in our own state. If you’re providing help – if you’re taking the time to find out what and where the need is and offering even the little bit that you can – no one is going to ask you why you didn’t give more. On the other hand, if you stand by and do nothing, then you’re the one who will be left asking yourself why.

It’s the action of helping that defines us as Jews, and we are all capable of some action, however large or small. It’s the action itself. That’s the message of the fidget spinner. It’s a reminder that the experiential Judaism that I preach is as simple as putting your fingers together to light the the Shabbos candles. The tactile feeling is as attainable as dropping coins into a tzedakah box. And whether or not you’re here every Saturday or you can fit in one daily minyan every third month, it’s about the feeling you get when you run those tzitzit through your fingers. Shanah tovah.