December 5, 2013
Conversation (Photo credit: Rohit Rath)
Judaism teaches us that every human being is created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. We strive to honor that spark of the Divine in every person, but that is not usually instinctive. It requires learning.
The philosopher and theologian Martin Buber taught that God is present between two human beings when we make what he called the “I-Thou” connection, a real and sacred awareness between two people, a true sharing and meeting of the souls. This can only happen when we are open to the other, when we are aware of each other without objectification or distance. It is a truly sacred moment.
I would like to introduce my readers to a remarkable young woman who is willing to teach us how to communicate and connect with a person with aphasia, damage to the part of the brain involved in language. I first heard of Laura Cobb because I went to high school with her mother: a photo of Laura riding her tricycle as a very little girl was on my refrigerator for years. Laura was hit by a drunk driver in September 2008, was in a coma for three weeks, suffered a stroke, and now has aphasia. She is a highly intelligent 27 year old with a lively sense of humor.
The aphasia has presented her with challenges in conversation with both friends and strangers. Laura took the remarkable step of creating a video to assist the rest of us in learning how to communicate effectively with people with aphasia. That video has gone viral, because it’s very, very good.
If you’d like to learn how to speak and how to listen to someone with aphasia, here is the video, in the context of a Huffington Post article about Laura. Much of what she suggests is also helpful for speaking with persons who have auditory processing difficulties and other language issues as well. If you are trying to talk with someone, and you get the feeling that language is a barrier, these are things to try.
This is a video that teaches important Torah, the art of connecting with another human being. Enjoy.
November 27, 2013
Tonight is my favorite night of Chanukah: the first night, when two little candles shine in the dark.
We light the first, the shamash (SHA-mash) “helper” candle, then use it to light the first of the eight candles of the festival. The two are almost silly looking, standing up tall and proud in an almost-empty menorah.
Every year those little candles inspire me. They stand up bravely, lighting up the night, holding up the hope for brighter nights to come. They don’t apologize for standing almost alone.
They remind me of the people who stand up for what is right, long before it is popular to do so. They shine their light regardless of who is looking or who might laugh. They shine and shine until their wax is gone and they sputter out. And then the next night – a miracle! – we light again, and there will be THREE candles standing against the dark.
Let us all be brave as those candles of the first night: Shine your light no matter who shines with you. Stand tall and be proud to stand, no matter how dark the night.
November 21, 2013
Silver candlesticks used for candle-lighting on the eve of Shabbat and Jewish holidays (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Recently I went to a friend’s house for Shabbat dinner. She asked all of us to bring our candlesticks and candles with us, and as the sun sank in the sky, we lined them up on the dinner table and lit them! It was a beautiful display.
Every set of candlesticks had a story. Some of the stories were simple: “These were my mother’s,” and some were long and involved. Some came from Israel, some from Walgreens. One set came from eBay. Some were very fancy (the ones from eBay were silver and pre-war Polish) and some simple (one set had been made in religious school by a now-grown child).
I’ve lit Shabbat candles in lots of places. I’ve scrunched up aluminum foil for “candlesticks,” or lit tea lights, and when I was a chaplain in a nursing home, we had electric lights. There’s nothing quite like the glow of a real candle, but even the little electric lights said “Shabbat” to us.
As we look forward to lighting the Chanukah candles, let’s pause to enjoy our Shabbat candles this week. Chanukah is fun, but it only comes once a year. The faithful little flames of Shabbat are there for us week after week, bringing comfort and joy.
May your Shabbat be a time of true rest, before the razzle-dazzle of Chanukah and the preparation of the Thanksgiving feast.
November 15, 2013
Kosher or not? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Periodically I will hear someone say that a food is kosher because “a rabbi said a prayer over it.” Not true. Kashrut is a complex topic, so I’ll tackle in it manageable “bites.”
Since Shabbat is coming, let’s start with wine.
- Kosher wine is wine that has been produced and handled only by Sabbath-observing Jews, and for which all ingredients were also kosher.
- You can tell if wine is kosher by looking for the hecksher (rabbinical mark) on the label.
- The rules for kosher wine go back to ancient times, when wine was used to worship idols. To avoid wine that has been tainted by idol worship, kosher wine must be handled only by observant Jews. This includes the servers who pour the wine.
- Wine has an important role in many Jewish celebrations, including welcoming Shabbat, making Havdalah at the end of Shabbat, kiddush for holidays, brit milah (circumcision) and weddings.
- Not all kosher wines taste “like cough syrup.” Some labels are now producing wines that can compare favorably with non-kosher wines on the market.
- Some people like the sweet wines like Manischewitz.
For more information about kosher wine, check out this article from the Kosher Wine Society.
November 6, 2013
Small purse for coins to be used for tzedakah (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
If you Googled “tzedakah” today you got about 598,000 results, topped by a l-o-n-g Wikipedia entry. Here are eight basic facts about tzedakah:
- Tzedakah (tzeh-dah-KAH or tzeh-DAH-kah) is the Jewish word closest to “charity.”
- The word tzedakah is one of a group of Hebrew words related to the idea of “justice.”
- Strictly speaking, tzedakah is money given for the relief of suffering or injustice.
- Tzedakah usually refers to monetary gifts, but can also refer to other kinds of contributions.
- Jews are commanded to give tzedakah for the benefit of the poor, the sick, and those who have suffered an injustice.
- More broadly, people use the word tzedakah to refer to money given for charitable causes.
- Every Jew is commanded to give tzedakah, even those who are recipients of tzedakah.
- It is customary to give tzedakah in memory of the dead, in honor of others, and before Shabbat and holidays.
- The proper amount of tzedakah depends on the means of the giver. Maimonides wrote in the Mishneh Torah that the ideal is 10% of income, and that more than 20% is foolhardy unless given in time of famine or to aid a captive. One should not give so much tzedakah that he puts himself at risk of needing to receive tzedakah from others.
For more about tzedakah, MyJewishLearning.com has a great article.
September 24, 2013
The sanctification of ordinary life is a hallmark of Jewish living. “You shall be holy, as the Eternal your God is holy” begins the Holiness Code, the very heart of the Torah (Leviticus 19.)
So when we eat, we take an ordinary thing (eating) and turn it into something more, something sacred, by surrounding the act of eating with blessings.
First, we NOTICE: I’m going to eat dinner!
Then, we ACKNOWLEDGE by blessing: Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Creator of Time & Space, who brings forth bread from the earth. We acknowledge that we are not the Bosses of Dinner: even if I cooked that dinner, I did not grind the flour, I did not grow the green beans, and I certainly didn’t give life to all the various components of the meal. By blessing I acknowledge that it is a miracle that the meal exists and that many human hands and perhaps animal lives went into making it. I acknowledge that this meal is a miracle.
Then we EAT. Yay!
Then we BLESS again. This time it is a long blessing called the Birkat Hamazon, It is a set of four blessings that we say because of the mitzvah (commandment) in Deuteronomy 8:10 “You will eat, and you will be satisfied, and you will bless.” This time it is a thank you blessing, but it doesn’t stop with a private thanksgiving. It goes on to thank God for sustaining all creatures, for sustaining the Jewish People, asking that God sustain the Jews in the future (sort of a thanks-in-advance) and then a fourth blessings gives thanks for all the many happy relations between God and Israel. Rabbi Micah Greenstein of Temple Israel, Memphis has made a very nice YouTube video you can watch below.
September 23, 2013
Jewish Cemetery (Photo credit: elPadawan)
Today I officiated at a funeral. It is a mitzvah that I am both sad and honored to do, to help a family through a difficult transition.
Jewish funerals are simple, powerful rituals. We read a few psalms and passages from the Bible, we memorialize the person with a hesped [eulogy], we chant El Male Rachamim [God, Full of Mercy] and Kaddish. We place the body of the person gently in the ground, usually in a plain wooden box, and we cover it up with earth.
The sound of the clods of earth falling on a casket are distinct and unforgettable. Even when the person in the grave is a relative stranger it is a sobering sound. It says, “This is final.”
Each mourner ladles three shovels full of earth into the grave. They put the shovel back into the pile of fresh earth, and do not hand it to the next person. There are superstitions about this that mostly have to do with containing the “contagion” of death. Nowadays few people believe in a literal Angel of Death or that death is contagious, but they still avoid handing the shovel to another person, and in the shiva house, they cover the mirrors.
Sometimes people are shocked, when they hear that thus-and-so is “to keep the Angel of Death away.” But really, all these traditions are for making ritual so that people who feel lost will know what to do. Otherwise, how can anyone know what to do at such a time, except collapse and cry?
We tell stories about these things. It is always important to see the faces, to touch the hands, to be with people. The stories are just stories.