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Archive for February, 2013

Teaching Hebrew School.

Teaching Hebrew school is a second pathway for me. I never would have guessed (in a hundred years!) I’d do this, nor that I would be flying so high after a day with these kids as I did this week. Now I admit, not every day’s this rewarding, and supplimentary Hebrew school’s got it’s problems, but these days make it so worthwhile. The kids’ names have been changed.

The afternoon began with the sixth grade reviewing the morning version of the Mi Chamocha – the giddy song of triumph sung at the crossing of the sea. I sang this Michael Walzer poem for them to figure out, (used as an intro to the prayer by the reform siddur): Standing on the parted shores of history; we still believe what we were taught before ever we stood at Sinai’s foot; that wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt; that there is a better place, a promised land; that the winding way to that promise passes through the wilderness; that there is no way to get from here to there, except by joining hands, marching together.

What does slavery mean today? I asked, is it just ancient history? Did you know people were bought and sold still today? Yes, they knew. What else could enslave folks? Adam told me people today were slaves to money! That so many parents in his town don’t see their kids so much, in the pursuit of this master. Brett knew what the poem meant by “marching together”: that none of us can do it alone – we need one another. Dave knew why music was the choice of response at the sea because “music’s inspiring”. Seriously, wow! After telling this group how much they rocked, I welcomed in fourth graders. We were beginning blessings, b’rachot. by telling of gifts they’ve given others. Most had been thanked for their gifts, but Jaden shared how her little brother had just run off with a gift she’d given him without thanking – made her feel pretty low. Can you think of gifts you’ve gotten today? How about a hundred gifts a day? “I didn’t get a hundred gifts!” shouted Jake. Well, the other kids argued with him – I didn’t have to do it, that he DID get those gifts: family, friends, food, love, puppies. But how can you remember to pay attention to these gifts? I told them about Aldous Huxley’s parrots from Island: “pay attention!” they squawked. How annoying! my fourth graders called out. Maybe saying blessings would be a better way to go!

This session was followed by Youth choir, one of only three twenty minute rehearsals we get per month. Sometimes these rehearsals are just a high point of my week – their youthful idealism just comes out in their voices and shines in their eyes. We are singing this Shabbat, and in a new program we call Kehilah Kedoshah (holy community) students are matching various arts to the Torah portion for that week – students choose their group, and ours is music. Well, this week’s Torah portion, called Ki Tisa, includes the saga of the golden calf and its aftermath. Moses, after receiving the gift of the tablets, God-inscribed,  sees the Israelites dancing, worshiping a sculpture of gold, and smashes the tablets. Talk about wrong moves: both the Israelites and Moses could have done a lot better. But it’s not the end of the story for either the Israelites or their temperamental leader. Instead it’s time for second chances. Moses argues for the Israelites, takes a second trip up that mountain, and is told to carve another set of tablets like the first, this time to inscribe them himself. This second try far outstrips the first. Troubled, or inspired, Moses asks to see God’s honor/presence. God explains that it could be deadly, but placed in that cleft of the rock, all God’s goodness will pass before Moses as God’s “back” (afterglow?) passes by. Inspired, Moses exclaims the thirteen attributes of God which have become a part of the Holy day Torah service liturgy. In a beautiful symmetry of how God calls “Moshe, Moshe” at the burning bush, Moses calls God’s name: Adonai, Adonai, merciful and kind, slow to anger, with great loving-kindness and truth… Moses is so transformed by the experience that he glows like he’s radioactive, so much that he must be veiled ever after.
The songs sung and chosen by the youth choir this month are about fixing mistakes, about making things better.  The first  is called “if Not Now” by Carrie Newcomer, (and credit to R. Hillel!) . If not now, tell me when? is about fixing the world. Check it out here, sung by Dan Nichols and Danielle Rudnisky

I swear the sound of these 30 or so kids singing their hearts out to these words was just inspiring. As was their rendition of Todd Herzog’s Be the Change ( Talk about blessings, I’ve got ’em.  No more to say!

Except my night was just half over. Hebrew High was coming, ninth grade. First up was “Expression of our Jewish Soul in Song” – a survey of mostly contemporary Jewish music arranged around themes, and this week’s theme was Torah. I’ve encouraged the kids to bring instruments if they’ve got ’em, and two brought their ukeleles and were playing Stairway to Heaven  -how perfect! (Led Zeppelin). So I joined in on the chords and we discussed the chords, and those of songs in general, and how to write songs…and class hadn’t even begun! This class is a taste of lots of songs, and we did some fun ones. My favorite moment: I was teaching them a two part arrangement of Leon Sher’s Adonai, Adonai which beautifully sets to music the words from this week’s portion (see above). We’d only gotten through half of it when Lizzy said something like “wait, I’m taking out my iphone to record this, we sound freakin’ amazing”, so we sang it again for her recording! After this someone shouted, “Hey can we sing Shalom Alechem again?” Ok, after we do Sweet as Honey, I replied, we just have to do that first. So we sang a bit of Todd Herzog’s Calling all Angels/ Shalom Alechem which we’d learned a couple of weeks ago, and they can’t get enough of. Be still my heart.

My last session for the night, after putting away the music, keyboard and guitar, was one on Science and Torah. OK,  cue the DVD player, take out the props (tarps, marbles, slinkies…) enter the all-boy class. The topic was on unity in physics and Torah. The last fifteen minutes featured a discussion of the Shema and a reading on Unity. The reading was an excerpt from Arthur Waskow’s Freedom Journey and I asked them what part of the reading spoke to them, and Bob selected this part: I am part of everything and less than nothing; I Anokhi a cell of the great Anokhi of the world come conscious.  I stand inside God’s skull, behind the face, I look out through God’s eyes, my face in Face, I see myself, ourself, Anokhi. Bob said that sometimes when he awoke in the morning he felt like this, and looked in the mirror and didn’t recognize who he was, and wondered what was real.  Wow! End the session.

Ki Tisa, second chances is about my life this week, I realize. I have gone up the mountain a second time with this second vocation teaching Hebrew school, and I have come down with my face radiantly aglow, and I am blessed.


Be Light! Limmud NY 2013

Light. The universe vibrates in particles which are also waves, traveling at amazing LIGHT speeds!  The part of the energy  spectrum we can see is light. Our flame, our passion and inspiration are also light. The awareness of our soul is light. When we remember a loved one we light a candle, and at Chanukah we sing: Don’t let the light go out! We leave the light on for our teen when they come home late, and light candles for Shabbat and Havdalah. We seek enlightenment and hope for a new light to dawn with each day. This week (portion Tetzaveh) the Torah speaks of the flame that is continuously lit, the ner tamid. Perhaps a symbol that God’s always there, and that our awareness can rise and rekindle like that flame.

One of my favorite songs of light is Dan Nichols’ Or Zarua. Or Zarua latzadik means light is sown for the righteous. The lyric continues: We must keep our hopes alive, we must raise our voices high , we must hold each other tight, we must stand up in the night and BE light! Listen here, and keep it light!

So how can a person BE light? Well one more thing about Light: it is the symbol of inspiration, of learning, of Torah.

I had an opportunity to find out about being light because I got to learn this week at Limmud, the NY/ London Jewish learning connection.  There I met teachers who WERE light! One of the teachers who touched me most was Arthur Kurzweil, author, publisher, musician and ….magician? Yes, I saw some of his illusions in a magic show that night. For Arthur magic is symbolic of some of life’s mysteries. The illusion is all we see, for we don’t know the whole story. In just this way we are too limited to understand all of the forces and effects of the bits of life we witness, just a small part. We miss too much due to our small slice of time and space and limits to our awareness.

Anyway, Arthur presented (in too brief a time) his twenty most important lessons from Kaballah to teach his children. He often referenced a book by Adin Steinsaltz, The Thirteen Petal Rose.  I’ll share some of his list here.

  1. The key to wisdom is this paraodox:  knowing we can never understand is the first step to some measure of wisdom and understanding
  2. We are not a body with a soul, we ARE a soul that happens to have a body.
  3. God is constantly creating the world at each moment, (rather than a past, distant creator)
  4. Perspective is not what you think: God knows each soul in the same quantity as the largest galaxy, because each is proportionally the same in relation to infinity!
  5. Only imagining the infinite makes understanding the finite possible, like Desargue’s Theorem in geometry
  6. All actions are the same size relative to God: the movement of a finger, or the largest catastrophe, both are miracles, important in the life of the universe
  7. Every descent is for the sake of ascension. Reb Nachman teaches that the greatest sin is pessimism, and R. Akiva teaches Gam zu l’tovah – “This too is for the good”
  8. Every detail of the human body is for the sake of divine revelation. Job exclaimed  In my flesh I see God. Arthur then added that our bodies are the pinnacle of creation. (My own opinion: in all nature there is divine revelation, not in our bodies alone. And remember, we are a soul, not a body!)
  9. The voice within you when you’re lost, that cries Ayekha? Where are you? is not your voice, but God’s, it’s a holy thing
  10. I love this one: If you think you’ve arrived….., that’s when you’re lost!
  11. The answer to the question Who am I? cannot be answered in relation to any other person: you are not defined as the child of… the spouse of… the parent of … any other. You are defined only in your relationship to the Infinite Eternal One. And the best in human relationships, helps you to better this ultimate relationship, to be more truly yourself
  12. The sin of knowing, of eating from the Tree of Knowledge is the sin of a bad education! This type of education doesn’t answer a person’s real questions, does not respond to who they really are, is a barrier rather than an enabler. As an educator, this one’s an eye opener!
  13. There is great benefit from instability: only through this risk can you be open to growth. Similarly to how your foot must be at the unstable place between rungs to climb that ladder.
  14. In studying Talmud, which Arthur described as 63 volumes of doubt, studies are interrupted for to pray from the siddur, a tiny volume of faith. To be stuck in either place is to be lost. The trick is to balance, to go back and forth.

I studied with another wonderful teacher Alicia Jo Rabins  who has composed songs in a  soulful  bluegrass style about the lives of biblical women. After an inspiring chevruta (partner) study on the life of Miriam, the text where Miriam gets “leprosy” after she and Aaron criticize Moses for marrying a Cushite woman, I wrote this song:

I Am Your Sister

What has happened to my hands, my face?

So white, like death, like rice.

I only want to live, finally free

Why not Aaron, Why just me?

Help me now please, I am your sister

I guarded you in those primal waters

Guiding you to flow to life so new

Now we need to see this through, to  renew.

Moses, she’s your wife, your forgotten one,

Mother of your two sons

I meant to remind you of her needs

She’s a woman scorned, like me.

Help me now please, I am your sister

I guarded you in those primal waters

Guiding you to flow to life so new

Now we need to see this through, to renew

Bridge: Miriam, bitter waters, falling like snowflakes on my skin

   Miriam, bitter waters, like my tears, there’s no place here for me, heal for me!

Help me now please, I am your sister

I guarded you in those primal waters

Guiding you to flow to life so new

Now we need to see this through, to renew

Finally, I studied with an amazing Brit named Clive Lawton who is the executive director of Limmud, chair of development charity Tzedek and a former head teacher of King David high school in Liverpool. He has become the accidental world expert on intercultural calendars after organizing an 18 culture calendar for the Brittish public schools. His presentation It’s about time was on the impact on our lives. Just a couple of points – the Jewish calendar is the only one which marks the start of time with the beginning of the universe, not our particular people. The Muslim calendar is the only one not tied to the solar year, because it’s not tied to any one place or to the seasons: it’s just as valid in Argentina as Alaska.  The Chinese New Year is impossible to predict more than a year in advance, most calendars are luni-solar, and that calendars organize how we think about time. One favorite quote: what were you doing on this day two years ago? Nothing, this day has never existed before, and never will again.

These teachers were a light in my life, as I pray I can bring some light to others’ lives.

Hamentashen, a recipe

I’ve just made a batch of hamentashen, thanks, Grandma!
This is a dairy recipe, and kids like it a lot.
Cream two sticks of butter with a cup of sugar and a tsp of vanilla.
Beat in three eggs.
In a separate bowl mix four cups of flour with four tsps. baking powder.
Add the flour mix a bit at a time until it’s all mixed in to the butter mixture.
Beat until smooth. Refrigerate dough for two hours.
Flour a board, and dip a glass into flour.
Roll to 1/8 inch thickness and cut out circles with the flour.
I use plum prune filling for half of my hamentashen, and mix strawberry jam with lots of chocolate chips for the rest.
Fill each circle with about half a tsp of filling, and pinch three corners to make the triangle.
I bake at 350 for about 18 (chai!) minutes.

Be With Us!

300px-kanizsa-triangle.svg-tmThe Torah portion this Shabbat is Terumah: Gifts. It is among my favorites, and was the subject of my first drash (1994!).

We have just come down from Sinai, and are still trembling from the encounter. We have fallen in love and now need to feel God’s presence in the wilderness. But we have to come down off that mountain and go to work, and deal with the nitty gritty details of life.  What to do with that transformative inspiration? The answer given here: We give gifts of our heart, and take gather pure materials, and make something of beauty: a portable sanctuary for God to dwell in our midst, the Mishkan. So our help can come in these material details, but be careful, herein lies a trap too! (more later)

In the Hebrew translation, God commands us to build a place for God to dwell “within us”. And that box, built for our pact with God is to be plated with gold within and on the outside, and guarded with “k’ruvim” Golden creatures. What’s up with that? How can God dwell in that Miskkan? What’s with all the gold? and aren’t those golden K’ruvim some of the gravenst images you’ve seen? And what does that have to do with God dwelling within us? Maybe a story can help explain!
Many years ago, in a shtetl in Eastern Europe lived a son, the eldest in his family named Dovid. Now Dovid was tired of mundane chores, he was hungry for ultimate truths, and so wanted to find God.  So he packed his few belongings, and explained to his tearful parents, and said he’d return one day.  Dovid had heard of a wonderful wise Rebbe in a town further down the road and thought,  surely he can show me where to find God.  And so he walked many days until he came to Reb Yitzhak’s home. He explained to the Rebbe his quest: Please Rebbe, help me to find God, can you teach me the secret? The Rebbe replied, Of course, but first, do you have a place to live. You must not be a stranger here. Acquire for yourself a home, and then return to me!
Well, Dovid had little money, so he went to the clearing and gathered some wood, and sought a carpenter to borrow tools. The carpenter lent him tools, and advice, and in a short time they became friends. He hammered and sawed and soon had a frame. Several townspeople came to help him raise it, and soon Dovid not only had a crude shelter, but several friends as well. So he returned to the Rebbe.  I have done as you asked and built my home, said Dovid.Please, Rebbe, tell me the secret, where can I find God. The Rebbi smiled: Wonderful, he said,  but you still are not ready. Go out and find a job, earn your keep, and then return to me and I will tell you this secret. Well, Dovid was frustrated, but what could he do?  He went into town, where he’d seen a sign for a baker’s assistant, and asked for the job. Another worker in the shop recognized him from the roof raising, and vouching for him, the baker hired Dovid. He worked hard, long hours, but became adept at making all kinds of breads and confections that he was very proud of. He also came to know many of the customers in the shop and was able to save a few coins. At this point, Dovid returned to Reb YItzhak. I have done as you asked and earned my keep. Now, Rebbe, can you tell me where to find God? The Rebbe smiled, You have done well, my son. Still, you are not quite ready. Dovid grew flustered: What more must I do to be ready, he exclaimed! Ah!, said the Rebbe, you must get married.  What!? cried the young man. Where am I going to find a wife?  But Dovid, not knowing what else to do, told the Rebbe he would try.

Well, he had noticed a lovely young lady shopping in the bakery each Thursday, and so he bought her flowers, and asked if they could walk in the park together one day. She blushed and said she would like that very much. And so they began to see one another, and tell each other of their hopes and dreams. They fell in love. Dovid did not know such happiness was possible, that another soul could touch his so deeply. So after awhile they married, and lived in happiness in the little home he had built. Dovid lived each day as if it had been created just for the two of them, and after awhile returned to the Rebbe.   Rebbe, I have done as you asked and found a wife, now can you tell me the secret? he pleaded. The Rebbe replied with a smile and shake of his head that Dovid was still not ready. This time Dovid also smiled, and sighed as he asked what more he had to do. You must have children! Replied the Rebbe. So Dovid returned to his home and wife, and very soon the Rebbe’s request would, of itself, become reality.  Dovid’s wife gave birth to twins – a boy and a girl! And as he held these tiny souls in his arms, he felt depths of love rise that he didn’t know he had inside. He vowed to care for them and protect them, and soon his life became filled with the details of that care. Before he knew it they were toddling around his happy home, and another child was born. You’d think there was no more love to share, but magically it simply multiplied.

And so Dovid returned to the Rebbe. He was still surprised when the Rebbe said he wasn’t ready, because he didn’t know what else he could do. Go home and wait, there is yet one more thing you must do. You will know it when it comes. So Dovid went home to his family and his work. After some months a messenger arrived in town with difficult words for Dovid. His father was very ill, and requested his son to be near. With tears in his eyes, he made the journey back and found his parents. As he sat by his father’s side and told him of his life, his home and job and family – grandchildren!, his father smiled deep in his eyes.  I can be gathered to my kin in peace and happiness, now. sighed the old man. And when his father passed away, Dovid did not know the depths his sorrow could find. And yet after time, what remained were the lessons, and the memories, and some peace replaced the sorrow.

After this he again returned to the Rebbe.  Yes, my son, now you are ready. You have already found the secret along your way. You find God in the connections you make to other people that fill your life. In their love and support, in the depths of your soul, in caring, there is God!  Dovid at first was annoyed at this answer, but slowly he began to understand the Rebbe’s words. He smiled as he remembered his wife and children, his friends and his father, and he knew the Rebbe was right!   And now, said the Rebbe, I grow old and tired. I wish to travel to be with my grandchildren, and will leave this town. Dovid was appalled! No, Rebbe, you can’t leave! Who will help people? Who will show them where to find God? The Rebbe smiled again, I was hoping you’d ask! Dovid you now know the secret. You have lived your life building loving connections to people in this town. It is you who can now take my place.  Dovid did not know if he could, but he pledged to the Rebbe that he would try. And now when young men and women wander into town and find Dovid and ask him for help to find God, he asks them Tell me, do you have a place to live?           (I first read this wonderful story of our tradition in a telling by R. Ed Feinstein.)

So back in the wilderness, following Sinai, the children of Israel need to hold on to inspiration. So they build a home. It takes a community to do that and gifts of their heart, and purifying metals and colors from the wilderness around them. In those connections between them, God can dwell within them. The pure gold lines the aron, the ark of the pact, inside and out, just as purity can line our hearts inside and out. And it is in our hearts that our pacts to one another and to God can live. It is a good thing to long for God and spiritual connections, but watch out. In purifying gold and other metals, and in building to make the Mishkan, we can forget what we were after. It’s the connections between us, not the material things. The gold of the k’ruvim becomes the gold of the calf that iat so is the trap of the golden calf. And the only way to fix it is to have our heart golden inside and out, to BE the mishkan, the dwellingplace of God! A few words from Debbie Friedman’s “It’s You”  My Heart has opened, since there’s You.

Not by Power

Mel Brooks in the 2000 year old man was asked by Carl Reiner if he remembers a time before religion. And he replies that before religion there was Phil. Phil was the biggest and strongest guy, everyone was afraid of Phil, until one day Phil was struck by lightening, and we realized there was something more powerful than Phil! listen here  . Is God just a power bigger than Phil? Perhaps just the opposite, God is what happens when we reject the search for power!

It may be in our human nature to use our power to control others, and this leads to terrible abuses, including the worst that humanity has to offer. From the bully in the playground to the Holocaust to the Janjaweed, a torturous military group in Sudan that puts guns in the hands of boys and turns them into destroyers. Both the abused and the abusers are degraded. Humans have been gifted tremendous power, never more than today, and famously power corrupts. The Torah portion for this week, Mishpatim, which means Laws, has a ton of rules dealing with abuses of power, from slaves that are beaten, to pregnant women (who are beaten) to kidnappers, to elder abuse (the adult child that curses his parent)  And in the midst of all of these rules reigning in power abuses is a startling scene, seemingly misplaced: Moses,  Aaron, 2 of Aaron’s sons and 70 elders climb a mountain and behold God and eat and drink!  Ex. 24:9  Seeing the Eternal, Creative force of the universe? Beautiful, otherworldly but not very Jewish, and how is that even possible?  Perhaps its placement here is meant to give insights into rejecting the power race of the world: rejecting war, and slavery and abuse of women, children, elders, even animals. And that if we reject power, our reward is spiritual fulfillment.

A story which begins with a kidnapping, moves to more violence and ends with liberation is told of a Rabbi and a Gladiator (retold from R. Ed Feinstein’s Capturing the Moon)  On a Bridge in Northern Israel, a long time ago, around the second century, two very different men met. One man, named Simon, was a gladiator. Born of a Jewish family, orphaned, and then kidnapped by Rome to be a fighter in the arena, he was the strongest, fiercest and most feared of all the gladiators. As he hurried across the bridge in full armor on his way to another contest, he met the second man, a very different kind of champion. Rabbi Yochanan was a slight man with kind eyes, a leader in his community renowned for the depth of his learning and love of Torah. He carried no weapons, just his scrolls. As the men met, Simon demanded that the rabbi move to let him pass, but Yochanan would not budge. Simon shouted, and threatened him: I’ll cut you into little pieces and feed you to the fish!, but still the rabbi would not move. Simon raised his sword, poised to strike the rabbi down, but then something amazing happened. Simon’s eyes met the calm eyes of his victim. Accustomed to seeing fear in the eyes of his rivals, and using terror as his weapon, he saw in the rabbi’s eyes only the calm strength of a man fully at peace with God and his place in the world. Simon had never seen this in anyone’s eyes, let alone one threatened by violence, and the power  and kindness in Yochanan’s face shook him to the core!  He stood there for several minutes staring, and then dropped his sword, fully captured by the gentle face of the great rabbi.

And Rabbi Yochanan saw something remarkable in Simon’s face. Beyond all the fury, the violence and arrogance, the rabbi saw a passionate desire to love and be loved. Beyond the armor of a gladiator was a soft heart, and a soul waiting to be touched. My brother, where are you going in such a hurry, began the rabbi, to kill or be killed in the service of the Empire? Replied the Gladiator: There is no greater service than the glory of Rome! I have sworn allegiance to Caesar!   Rabbi Yochanan slowly replied: One day Rome will be gone, her arenas reduced to Rubble, Caesar long gone and forgotten. Only God’s glory is eternal. You are created in this Eternal image, and carry God’s light within you. This is Torah: only this power should you put above yourself and serve, not Caesar’s! Come join me in this greater quest, my friend – the quest to master God’s teachings.
But Simon shook his head I know only how to fight and kill, I don’t even know how to read or write, how can I study?  The Rabbi replied Your heart is stronger than your sward, and that is all God requires of you. Come, my brother.  Perhaps it was the Rabbi’s kind voice or eyes, or perhaps the fact that no person had yet called him brother, but Simon began to cry. Tears streamed down his face, and his cries echoed across the bridge. He dropped his sword, and unbuckled his armor, wiped his face and followed the Rabbi. Simon became Rabbi Yochanan’s best student, and in time became a Rabbi himself, the great Reish Lakish. He also became Yochanan’s brother in law when he married the Rabbi’s sister. They wrestled over Torah for rest of their days, bringing the love of learning to all.

And of course the musical link to all this, Debbie Friedman’s Not by Might here at three minutes in to the video


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