A Prayer for Superman Sam

December 3, 2013
My brother John  & Me. The family resemblance should positively shine after my prayer in March!

My brother John & me. The family resemblance should positively shine after my prayer in March!

This March, I am going to pray in a new way: I’m going to shave my head.

The backstory:

Sam is a eight year old with acute myeloid leukemia, the son of two of my colleagues, rabbis in the Midwest. He has been through a year and a half of horrific treatments, and recently doctors informed his parents that the disease is back but all of Sam’s treatment options are exhausted. The leukemia is going to take Sam’s life, despite all he and his family have suffered.

Many of us who have prayed and watched with breaking hearts as this drama unfolded have struggled for some response to this. We have learned some startling things: that only 4% of federal funding for cancer research is earmarked for children’s cancers, that many of the treatments available are hideous and, bottom line, too many children go through those difficult treatments and still die of cancer.

I saw some of this first hand a few years ago when I was a chaplain intern in the Bone Marrow Unit at City of Hope in Duarte, CA. Bone marrow transplants can sometimes work miracles, but even the success stories are harrowing. Following Sam’s story brought back memories and nightmares from that internship, and I was not a patient, only a chaplain.

This March 31, at the national convention of Reform rabbis, 36 of us are going to shave our heads in solidarity with the children and the families that are devastated by cancer. We’re calling it 36 Rabbis Shave for the Brave. We do this as a prayer: a prayer for more research, a prayer for more effective, less destructive treatments, and a prayer that the children and their families will know that we stand with them as they face these terrible diseases. We will do it as a prayer of lamentation for young lives that know too much pain, for young lives cut short, for families who have to watch as little children suffer.

But this is an active prayer, and we ask others to participate. Here’s the deal: I’m going to shave my head. You, dear reader, can participate by donating to the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, a fundraiser for children’s cancer research. All you have to do is click the link at the bottom of this post and donate what your heart suggests. In exchange, I will send you a nice thank you note with an “after” picture of myself, bald as my baby brother. You will also have a tax deduction and the knowledge that you have not stood by while your neighbor bleeds – or goes bald. (Leviticus 19:16)

During the Civil Rights Movement, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said that he “prayed with his feet” at Selma. I am going to pray with my hair. Please, join me in prayer by clicking on the link and joining me in speaking up for children with cancer. We cannot save Sam, but this we can do.

To donate to St. Baldrick’s Foundation via my page, click here. You will find info for donating directly online,  by mail, or by phone. 


How Do Jews Pray for the Sick?

December 2, 2013
A Prayer for healing. . .

A Prayer for healing. . . (Photo credit: Creativity+ Timothy K Hamilton)

I got a question via Twitter: “How do Jews pray for the sick?”

The simplest prayer for the sick is one we learn from Moses. In Numbers chapter 12, Moses’ sister Miriam falls ill with tzra’at (tzah-RAH-at), a terrible sickness something like psoriasis. (It’s often translated “leprosy” but that translation is inaccurate.) Horrified, Moses blurts out the shortest prayer in the Torah, indeed, in our tradition: “El na refah na la!”  “Please, God, heal her!” God’s response is to say that she will be healed, after it runs the minimum course of seven days and she follows the rules for those who have tzara’at, living outside the camp.

 

In this story, Miriam gets the disease because she gossiped with Aaron about their brother Moses. Tzara’at was understood to be the result of the particularly pernicious sin of evil speech. Notice, though, that Aaron was not struck ill even though he was a full participant in the sin. Some suggest that Aaron’s punishment was to see his sister suffer when he knew he was partially responsible. I think it is a message to the reader that wrongdoing and sickness are not always linked.

Today this is only one prayer we say for the sick. We recite a “Mi Shebeirach” (mee sheh-BAY-rach) (“May the One Who Blessed”) prayer during a Torah service for the sick, and in some congregations the same prayer is said or sung at other services as well. We pray extemporaneously, as Moses did, and we also say prayers for the healthy body. Some of us pray for the sick in other ways, by doing medical research, or caring for the sick and their families, or by doing other things. My next blog post will be about one of those prayers. (Stay tuned!)


How Will I Ever Feel At Home in Services?

November 12, 2013
Grand Lake Theater of Dreams

When I drive past the Grand Lake Theater, I am flooded with memories.(Photo credit: Thomas Hawk)

Last night I attended a memorial service in Fremont, CA. It’s just down the freeway from my home, but I have only been there a couple of times, and I was completely dependent on my GPS getting in and out. I passed lots of places that meant absolutely nothing to me.  Eventually I arrived at my destination, attended a beautiful service, and then did the whole thing again going home.

It’s different when I drive around Oakland. I lived in Oakland for almost 20 years, and now I live in the town next door. When I drive anywhere in Oakland, every street corner has a memory. I used to drive down Grand Ave, by the Lake, to take the kids to school. When I drive down Piedmont Ave, I am reminded of lunches with my old study partner. When I drive up Redwood Road, I remember the scary time I was trying to take the kids home and the road turned into a river of muddy water around us.  And so on.

Attending religious services is like driving in a town. If I attend a Unitarian service, I have no idea what’s going on. I’ve only been to one service and I was lost the whole time. I could tell that the people around me were “into” it, but I didn’t know what was going on, and there were no memories connected with any of it. It was like driving around Fremont, clinging to the GPS.

But in the familiar Jewish service, I meet memories at every corner: that prayer comforted me when my friend died, this prayer was taught me by a beloved teacher. One prayer annoys me, and another prayer always thrills me. I remember when new things were added (sort of like remembering what was on Lakeside Dr. before the Trader Joe’s went in) and I feel at home.

There is only one way to get that kind of homey familiarity with a town or with a service: you have to live there for a while. Maybe not 27 years (I lived in Jerusalem only for a year, and it is full of memories) but you have to show up, and get lost, and get found, and stumble around. That messy stage of finding one’s way is an integral part of the process.

So the next time you are in a service and you feel like, gee, when am I ever going to feel at home with this? – consider the possibility that maybe you need to go more often, or more regularly. It’s only by logging the miles that the place will really become home. The good news is that as that if you put in the time, it’s inevitable.  That mysterious service will be well and truly yours.


A Lesson from Daylight Savings

November 3, 2013

Daylight savings time annoys me. It gives me jet lag without the pleasure of travel. However I have to admit that I learned some thing from it this year.

I woke before my alarm, gently, easily, perfectly rested. Then I saw the sunlight pouring in and jerked fully awake, horrified that I had slept through my alarm and would be late to teach my Sunday morning Intro class. I calmed only when I saw the clock: yes, it was only 6:30.

“Fall back an hour” gave me the additional hour of sleep that I usually deny myself. I felt GREAT.

We make tremendous fuss in our culture about “fitness” which is almost always code for “weight.” But we often abuse our bodies in socially approved ways which leave us anything but truly fit,

There is a prayer for the body which Jews have said from ancient times, Asher Yatzar. It reminds us that our bodies are intricate creations which can be disrupted by a small misfunction. I am going to pay more attention to getting enough sleep. So thank you, Daylight Savings, for pointing out to me that I need to make this small teshuvah (adjustment.)

Is there something you need to do to take better care of your marvelous, mysterious body?


9 Things to Know about Kol Nidre

September 13, 2013

Kol Nidre is a famous and much-misunderstood part of the Yom Kippur service.

  • Kol Nidre (KN) means “All Vows.”
  • Kol Nidre is pronounced COAL nee-DRAY.
  • Kol Nidre is a legal formula recited at the beginning of the evening Yom Kippur service.
  • Kol Nidre is a legal formula declaring that religious vows made in the coming year are null and void.
  • The purpose of Kol Nidre is to underline the seriousness of vows, and to nullify vows made out of passion or frivolity.
  • Kol Nidre does not affect oaths taken in court or any other secular vows or promises made to human beings.
  • Kol Nidre is written and recited or chanted in Aramaic.
  • We do not know when Kol Nidre was first recited, but we know it appeared in the prayer book of Rav Amram in the mid-9th century CE.
  • Today Kol Nidre sets the mood for the beginning of the Yom Kippur services, the most solemn in the Jewish Year. Its significance goes beyond any literal meaning of the prayer; rather, it puts the congregation into the mood to do the serious prayer work of the evening and the day that follows.

To learn more about Kol Nidre, you can read this article in the Jewish Virtual Library.

 

 


#BlogElul 18 – Rabbi Heschel’s Prayer

August 24, 2013
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(Photo credit: Egan Snow)

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously said, “In Selma, Alabama, I learned to pray with my feet.”

In English, we have a tendency to use the words “religion” and “faith” as interchangeable, and it is possible that it works for some religions, but for Judaism, it most emphatically does not work. Jews believe many different things: at the extremes, I know good Jews who are thoroughgoing atheists, and equally good Jews who have regular conversations with a God for whom the pronouns are male. The only real deal breaker for normative Judaism is monotheism: if a person believes in multiple gods or subdivisions of God or persons-within-God they are over the line.

Deeds, including speech, are another matter. I am still a Jew, but I cannot claim to be a “good Jew” if I stand by while my neighbor bleeds, if I do nothing while the vulnerable go hungry, if I do not pursue justice. That, with monotheism, was the great message of the Jewish prophets:  see chapter five of the prophecy of Amos if you doubt me.

So it is appropriate today, the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington, to remember that we  pray with our feet, our hands, our keyboards, our wheels, our habits of consumption, and our speech to and about others.

Let us pray.

This post is part of the series #BlogElul, the brainchild of Rabbi Phyllis Sommers. Participants mark the passage of time during the month of Elul with social media meditations on topics connected with the High Holy Days and the month of Elul.


Fear and Humming: a Cancer Scare

June 25, 2013

English: SAN DIEGO (Sept. 22, 2008) Lead Mammo...

It all started six weeks ago when I found a lump in my right breast. My regular mammogram was coming up, so I figured OK, I will just keep the appointment. That was the wrong plan, because insurance being what it is, I needed to have a different kind of appointment with different approvals for a mammo with an actual bump. Oh.

I got the callback for Mammo #2 after a week. (Yes, I had to wait for the results on #1 before they could sign me up for round 2.) Round 2 was more mammography plus an ultrasound.

That trip to the radiologist was scary. I thought I was pretty calm at first, but when techs kept “going to check with the doctor” and then coming back to take more images again and again, I got very nervous. The last verse of Adon Olam [Master of Time & Space] played over and over in my head:

B’yado afkid ruchi
b’eit ishan v’a-irah
V’im ruchi g’viyati, 
Adonai li, v’lo ira.

In English:

Into your hand I trust my soul,
When I sleep and when I wake.
As with  my spirit, my body too:
God is with me and I will not fear.

Then the tech asked me to hum.  It was the first thing she’d said to me in a while.

“What?”  I was startled – you want me to what? 

“Hum, please, it will help us see details.”

So I hummed what was in my head: Adon Olam.  It was weirdly comforting. It was also just plain weird.

She snapped a few more pictures and then let me get dressed. Off I went to wait for another report. I got yet another callback: time for an “ultrasound guided needle biopsy.”

That time, no singing.

And finally, good news: it’s benign, probably a bit of damage from last year’s car accident. Whew.

The whole adventure took 6 weeks. My beloved life-partner, Linda, was a wonderful support. I can only imagine what bells were going off in her head as a two-time cancer survivor. I told a small circle of people what was happening, and they were solid: my rabbi, my cantor, a couple of friends.

I learned some things about myself. I was afraid, so afraid that I couldn’t admit I was afraid. The ancient words of Adon Olam became my mantra, insisting that I will not fear. I clung to the words, and to the tune, and to all of it because it was a fixed point in what I feared was about to become an unraveling world.

Did I believe “God is on my side so I will not have cancer?” Of course not. The fixed words of the prayers were a handhold on the familiar, on the things that endure. They were comforting precisely because they had been hummed by so many distressed Jews before me. They were comforting to me because they were a statement of faith that whatever happens, I am not alone.

I believe that God is the ultimate mystery; I do not presume to say much of anything about God on my own. What I do believe is that I am not alone, that goodness will be made manifest to me through the actions of good people, and through the blessings of creation, which is itself good. (Gen.  1:31) And I do believe that the traditions of Judaism link me to many of those people, and to a particular experience and appreciation of life.

Adonai li, v’lo ira.

In a way, it’s a whistle in the dark. I choose to believe that at the heart of the universe, there is goodness. Even had it been cancer, even had it been very, very bad, my life has meaning.

Adonai li, v’lo ira!


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