Good Grief – Parshat Chayei Sarah 5779

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Do you ever feel completely wiped out? Sometimes I feel so bone tired and knocked down, I could just sleep for hours. Bear in mind I say “hours” and not “days” because I’m a parent of young children who still wake up weekly in the middle of the night, so the luxury of consecutive hours of sleep sounds beautifully restorative. Everything is relative, right? It’s even worse when I’m sick. On days when I’m under the weather, I just want to lie on the couch and not move until the cold is gone.

And then there are weeks like this one when complete devastation knocks me down the hardest. It seems impossible to go on, and yet, somehow we must.

This very week, the Torah happens to teach us how to go on, find courage, and be a blessing. We read from Parshat Chayei Sarah, which makes the transition from one generation to the next. Beginning with Sarah’s death, we learn about Isaac and his courtship with Rebekkah, the list of Abraham’s decedents, and the death of Abraham and his burial at the cave of Machpelah. Through it all the family continues to push their way from experiences of loss and grief into the next chapter of life.

It seems crazy that Abraham, and then Isaac, would be so quick to bury their loved ones. When we experience a loss, the paralyzing emotions we experience are in direct conflict with the pace at which our tradition encourages us to move on. Nevertheless, the Torah instructs us to waste no time in burying the deceased. In chapter 23, verses 3-4 we read, “Then Abraham arose from beside his dead, and spoke to the Hittites, saying, ‘I am a resident alien among you; sell me a burial site among you, that I may remove my dead for burial.’” Even in his deep grief, Abraham does not allow himself to wallow just yet; instead, he rushes to honor his beloved Sarah and give her a proper, timely burial.

As Jews we are commanded to bury our dead quickly. There are many reasons for this, but perhaps the most important is that it actually helps the grieving process. We, the living, must be able to say goodbye and have some closure if we are to fully grieve and move forward. Shiva allows for seven days of direct community support, and saying Kaddish for a year ensures that mourners continue to have indirect support as they keep their loved one close.

Through everything we do in Judaism, we walk yad b’yad (hand in hand), as the name of our grief partnership program here at Neveh Shalom suggests. The reason is simple – it’s so that we never have to experience life, or death, alone. May we strengthen and lift one another up, in happiness and in grief, and may all our lives be a blessing.

Adonai Li V’Lo Irah

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At 7 a.m. I was snuggled under the covers, playing a cozy game of monster with my sweet two-year-old son. My only worry was that he not wake his sister. We were luxuriating in the peacefulness of Shabbat. At that same moment, a gunman with hate in his heart entered Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh and opened fire, killing at least 11, injuring more, and fracturing a sacred space.

At 10 a.m. my own synagogue began reading from Parshat Vayera, the text which begins with Abraham in his wide open tent, a symbol of welcoming for our people, a proof text for why synagogues keep their doors open to all who want to come in on Shabbat. At the same time, the president of the United States remarked that the synagogue was at fault for having not locked down their campus.

At 12 p.m. we sang Adon Olam, ending with the line, “Adonai li v’lo irah.” God is for me, I shall not fear. The families at Tree of Life didn’t get to sing that affirmation of faith today. These words were hard today. My shul is called Neveh Shalom, “oasis of peace,” and it is this sacred space for my children. How can I have no fear if the very essence of my community feels threatened?

At 1 p.m. I sang my daughter her naptime song, “Lo Yisa Goy.” Nation shall not lift up sword against nation. That is when I cried.

May we see a day in our future when the desire to welcome one and all like Abraham outweighs the urge to cause harm. May the day be near when we can affirm our faith in God who protects while actually feeling protection in all our houses of worship, no matter the faith. May we see the day speedily in our lifetime when we all pursue peace.

Sugar Coated – Parshat Vayera 5779

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For some reason keeping comments to myself doesn’t come naturally to me. Do I have a filter? Yes. Do I use it as often as I should? That depends on who you ask. Throughout my life I’ve had to work hard to say the right thing at the right time, or at least keep the snarky and inappropriate thoughts silent. My tone of voice and sometimes biting remarks were a source of great strife as I made my way through my teenage years and young adulthood. Even now I constantly check myself to see if what I’m about to say out loud will be harmful to others, or if there’s a better or nicer way I could say it, or if it really needs to be said at all. I have to use extreme care and caution in picking my words so that the conversation remains productive and not destructive. The old saying, “If you have nothing nice to say, say nothing at all” is a rule with which I struggle daily.

I know I’m not alone in my cautious selecting of words and tone. In fact, throughout the Torah we receive warnings of the problems that arise when we either don’t choose our words carefully or use our words to destroy. In this week’s parshah, Vayera, we learn this lesson as well. Here’s the recap: Abraham and Sarah contemplate the son that will be born to them in their old age; Sodom and Gomorrah fall as Abraham bargains with God to save Lot’s life; and Isaac is born, causing a rift in Abraham’s house with Ishmael. Abraham moves forward in making a deal with King Avimelech, and we end with the Akeidah, the test of Abraham as God asks that he offer up his son, Isaac.

When Sarah learns of her pregnancy, her first reaction is to laugh, responding, “Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment with my husband so old?” She’s telling God there’s no way she can be pregnant because her husband is so old. However, when God recounts the experience to Abraham, God changes her reaction and asks, “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Shall I in truth bear a child, old as I am?’” Remember, Sarah called Abraham old, not herself, but God changes the harshness of Sarah’s reaction to cushion the blow for Abraham.

This verse is used as the proof text in the Talmud in Tractate Ketubot, where we learn that one is not obligated to tell the whole truth if it will hurt someone’s feelings. Part of being human and engaging in human relationships is the ability to discern what is necessary to share and what might be best “softened” for others. It’s not that we have a free pass to lie, but we do have the obligation to think of other people first and make sure our words and actions come from a place of respect.

You Do You – Parshat Lech Lecha 5779

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Every morning my daughter’s preschool class begins with free play. There are options to play blocks, or draw, build or explore. Nine times out of ten, though, Shiri is playing dress up. Sometimes the outfits are hilarious, with as many layers piled on as she can put on her body. Other times she’s a doctor, a waitress, a princess, or a mommy. Imaginative and creative play are staples in our preschool classrooms because they allow our children to try on different roles, explore what it means to be the leader or a follower, and discover what feels comfortable and what feels unique and different. It’s natural for there to be a lot of gender fluidity in early childhood development. That doesn’t mean that genders are changing, it just means children are experimenting with different roles. Play is without gender or stereotype at this age, and there is great strength and beauty when children explore their world to find their authentic selves.

As adults, it’s easy to get stuck in a rut being who we think we’re supposed to be instead of being our best selves. This challenge of human adult life has been around for a while, and in fact the same thing happened to Abraham. This week we read Parshat Lech Lecha. In Parshat Lech Lecha, we are finally introduced to Avram and Sarai – later Avraham and Sarah – who become the great patriarch and matriarch of the rest of our narrative. We learn that Avraham follows God with full intent, without questioning, and that Sarah goes with him. God tells him to leave his home, leave the only house he’s ever known, and go to a place he knows nothing about. He’s following God’s voice and taking a leap of faith.

The text begins, “The Lord said to Avram, ‘Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.’” A literal translation of lech l’cha is “go forth” or “betake yourself.” However, the Mei Hashiloach, a compilation of the teachings of Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner, translates this in a midrash as, “Go forth to find your authentic self, to learn who you are meant to be.” In other words, the text lists the various levels of “leaving” or “exploration” which a person must go through in order to identify who their true, authentic self is.

To add this concept to what we already know about Avraham, finding yourself isn’t simply deciding to be the true you; it’s physically seeking out that person. In order to be your best, most authentic self, there’s a journey to travel, and the hardest part of the journey is the possibility that some less authentic part might be shed in order to make a new discovery. But as we learn with Avraham, we must go forth and explore – only then can we be sure to bring our gifts into the world.

Survivor Guilt – Parshat Noach 5779

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Survivor guilt (sometimes called survivor syndrome) is a term that describes feelings of guilt that result from a person believing they have done something wrong by surviving a tragic event which other people did not survive. Survivor guilt is not uncommon among survivors of large scale events like terrorist acts, war, and natural disasters, but it can also work its way into very personal tragedies, affecting the friends and family of those who died by suicide, for example.

There are countless destructive incidents that plague our world and plenty of stories of someone who was supposed to be on that flight or in that building but wasn’t. Sometimes those survivors carry around a tremendous amount of guilt on top of the grief as they continue to live while others perished, and harboring these feelings can lead to alienation or worse.

This week we read the story of Noah in Parshat Noach. This second section of text in the entire Torah takes us through the story of the flood, building the ark, saving his family and the animals, sending out a dove, and God’s promise to never do this again. We learn of the generations of Noah and how humanity moved on to create the next piece of the narrative, the Tower of Bavel. After the Tower of Bavel we see that the nations are scattered, and then the Torah quickly moves us through the 10 generations between Noah and Abraham, where the rest of our narrative history takes off.

Back to Noah, there is an interesting “blip” in Noah’s character in Parshat Noach. The flood is over, Noah and his sons come off the boat, and Noah finds his family alone in the world. The first thing Noah does after they disembark is to plant a vineyard. Chapter 9, verses 20-25 describe his subsequent behavior as a drunken stupor full of acts of impropriety. Apparently Noah and his sons find themselves needing to cope with their loneliness, and they turn to a vice to get them through. The sages imagine that Noah was overwhelmed by the task of rebuilding a destroyed world. This may have been mixed with feelings of isolation and simultaneously feelings of guilt that so many perished while he survived.

When we find ourselves in Noah’s position, feeling alone, angry, or guilty about our own life circumstances, it’s helpful to have coping mechanisms in place ahead of time. It’s challenging to push through a traumatic experience, but finding healthy ways to cope with our emotions is essential.

As a personal note, know that my door and inbox are always open. It’s our job as a community, and as a community we are always here to support one another. That’s how we survive.