A Word to Readers in France

I am sick to hear of the terrible violence in Paris. As Shabbat falls here in California, know that you and all France are in my prayers tonight. You will be in our thoughts as we sit at the Shabbos table.

May all who suffer be comforted, and may peace soon be restored in your beautiful country.

Shabbat Shalom: Toldot

This week we look at the eventful and troubling parashah Toldot, or “Generations.”

I confess I don’t have a d’var Torah to offer you this week, but I can point you to several good ones online:

Blind Love from ParshaNut, by Rabbi David Kasher

A Father’s Love by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

Joy and Loss by Rabbi Emma Kippley-Ogman

Sowing in the Unity of Love by Ariel ben Avraham

Can I Identify with the Struggles of Others? by Isaiah Rothstein

What to Say When Someone Dies

If you really want to learn what to say, spend some time reading What To Say When Someone Dies, a magnificent blog by writer and editor Teresa Bruce. Ms. Bruce is a widow, so she speaks from experience.

I know of few better resources anywhere for comforting the mourner. a mitzvah which we call in Hebrew Nichum Avelim (nee-CHUM ah-veh-LEEM.)

Jewish tradition reminds us that our presence is the main thing we have to offer. There is a human impulse to run away, to avoid, and we must fight that impulse with all our might, because there are few things more cruel than to abandon a mourner. Mourners bear the weight of loss, and they deserve our support. We can express that support by showing up, by reaching out, and sometimes simply by being there in silence. But sometimes we need to know what to say, or how to say it: that’s where Ms. Bruce’s blog is such a gift.

There are a lot of entries. Use the tools on the side: search box, categories. Find the things that will help you in your current situation. She covers many situations, and you can leave her a question in comments  if you can’t find the help you need.

So go, read, learn how to be there for the mourners in your community! If you don’t know any now, the day will come and you don’t want to be caught flat-footed! This is a mitzvah we can all do, and with such gentle instruction, we can do it well.

How Can We Talk About Israel?

A reader asked, “How do you talk to non-Jews about an Israel that’s less than perfect?”

I live in the capital-L Liberal San Francisco Bay Area, just a few miles south of the University of California, Berkeley. I get the question on a regular basis: “How can you support Israel, and call yourself a decent person?”

In many ways I’m a typical resident of the “East Bay” – my politics are liberal. I didn’t start out that way, but various life experiences have made me into a definite social democrat.

I’m also a fervent Zionist, by which I mean that I believe there needs to be a place on the planet where Jews are in charge of our own fate. I think that because there’s a massive pile of evidence that when other people have power over us, especially if there is an established religion, they’ll treat us very badly. In the 20th century, nearly all the Jews of Europe were wiped out, and there are still people saying that that would have been a good thing.

So, the questioners ask, how do I resolve supporting Israel and being a decent person? Like a rabbi, I answer the question with a question: “Are you an American?” Usually the answer is yes, so I ask another question: “Do you approve of everything about America?” That brings a sputtering “No!” And then I can say, “Me, either,” which gives us some common ground.

I do not carry an Israeli passport, but I support Israel. Do I approve of everything about Israel? Heck no, any more than I approve of everything about America. Some things I disapprove of are common to both places!

I’m not going to give out a laundry list of things I would change about Israel any more than I would give a Russian newspaper a rundown of what I would change about America. However, I’ve got my list, and when I’m in a situation to act effectively upon it, I act. Right at the moment, there are so many people hating on Israel – saying that it has no right to exist whatsoever – that I prefer not to provide my words as ammunition for that chorus.

What bothers me most  is the attitude that Israel has no right to exist. I want to say, pray tell, where should the millions of Jews who live there go, if they are not to live in Israel? They were born there. It is their home. A few have been there since long before Zionism: that group was called The Old Yishuv. They’d been in Israel for a long, long time.

Note that I’m not talking about some kind of Biblical deed to the land. I base my understanding on the fact that the majority of Israelis today are the children of Jews who settled in the one place where they were allowed to go, in a place that as a group they had regarded as “home” for millennia. Others came by choice, most of them (admittedly not all) during periods when that choice was legal. Then, in 1948, the United Nations set an arbitrary line down what had been the British Mandate of Palestine and said, Jews on one side, Arabs on the other. The Jews promptly declared a state on their side of the land, and the next day armies from Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq invaded, intent on killing the Jews. Too few people cared about the Palestinian inhabitants of the land and that was tragic.  I admit that they were badly treated – by ALL parties.

I would like to see peace with justice for all, which means that no side will get everything they want. Especially it means that neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians will suddenly disappear from the face of the earth, or fall into the sea, or otherwise just get out of the way. I don’t want an apartheid State of Israel, and I don’t want a Palestinian State that will bomb Israel forever with impunity.

What I want is for both sides to figure out a way to coexist. And maybe that isn’t possible, but I am unwilling to give up on it yet. I know for a fact that there are Israelis who want it, and Palestinians who want it, too.

What I know for certain is that there is no simple solution, and that anyone who uses the word “simple” in relationship to this problem is sadly misinformed or deluded.

In the meantime, I have millions of Jewish cousins in Israel. To me, that’s one thing being a Jew means:  that all the Jews in the world are my cousins.  I am going to worry about them, and be loyal to them, because we have this kinship. If I am upset with them, I’ll tell them privately, but I won’t hand the haters weapons to throw at them.

This may be more of an answer than my reader really wanted. It might be that all you need to do is ask the person you’re talking with, do they love everything about the country of which they are a citizen?  I guarantee you that there’s something they don’t like. Part of loving something – or someONE, for that matter – is knowing that they aren’t perfect. Either that, or you don’t know them well enough yet.

I would just caution you against trying to find agreement by listing all the things you don’t like about Israel. It will not persuade them. If they are antisemites, it will be ammunition. If, on the other hand, they are troubled by some of the choices Israel’s governments have made, a reminder that all governments fall short of the ideal may help them understand.

Visiting the Sick: It’s a Mitzvah!

Bikkur cholim (bee-KOOR khoh-LEEM) is the mitzvah of visiting the sick. It’s one of those mitzvot from the to-do list in the morning service, those “obligations without a limit” that reward us both in this world, and in the world-to-come. Often we can become stuck between our wish to do a mitzvah, and our wish to be sensitive to the needs of the sick person.

Here are some things to do that will help:

  1. Cards and notes are always helpful. I had no idea how powerful a get-well card could be until I was the recipient. Cards and notes always arrive at a good time, and they never intrude. Especially for someone who is very sick or tired, they are a wonderful choice. You can send a get-well card even to someone you know only slightly, and it will still do them a world of good.
  2. In person visits can be powerful, if they are done properly. Some things to remember about in-person visits:
    1. Arrange the visit ahead of time. Call ahead, or use email to set a good time. Do not just “pop in” because you were “in the neighborhood.” 
    2. Keep visits short: 15 minutes tops, 5 minutes if the person is very sick or looks tired.
    3. Keep it low key. Bring good wishes and pleasant talk. Don’t be afraid of silence.
    4. Avoid medical discussion. Do not quiz the patient about the doctor or the diagnosis. Do not criticize or share medical stories. It can be very tempting to share knowledge, but it is more likely to do harm than to help.
    5. Avoid telling them how they should feel. They may be grateful to be alive, or furious to be sick. They may be angry with God, or full of blessings. Just meet them wherever they are, even if you are uncomfortable with their emotions. (Remember, you aren’t staying long, anyway.)
    6. Listen. The patient may want to talk about the medical situation. This can fill many needs. If something sounds “off,” suggest that they talk about it with their doctor. Again, don’t offer diagnoses or advice.
    7. Offer help, but take direction. It is great to offer to water flowers or do small tasks, but if the patient says, “no,” honor their wishes. One aspect of illness is helplessness: don’t make them feel more helpless by disregarding their boundaries.
    8. Appropriate touch can be wonderful. The touch of your hand on theirs can be very healing, if it is possible. Touching other body parts can be intrusive, however.
    9. Offer prayer. With many Jews, this may take the form of wishing them a “Refuah Shleimah” [a complete healing] without any explicit reference to prayer. However, if they want to pray and you are up for it, go ahead. Again, be sensitive to their comfort.
  3. Other ways to help a sick person:
    1. Check in with caregivers. Do they need help or support? Often the caregiver can tell you ways you can help or errands you can run. Remember to support them, not lean on them.  Do not burden the caretaker with your fears or misgivings. Do not tell them what to do, or how to do things differently.
    2. Make sure the rabbi knows that this person is sick. Unfortunately, HIPPA laws in the US make it impossible for hospitals to notify the rabbi when a congregant is ill. The rabbi will want to know! Call and tell them.
    3. Make a donation in the sick person’s honor to synagogue or charity. Especially in a long illness, this can help connect them with the outside world.

One sure thing: all of us get sick sometimes, even the healthiest people. Whether it is a small temporary thing or a life-threatening illness, or a chronic trouble that goes on for years, human contact can provide relief and strength. The Torah and our tradition put a high value on bikkur cholim precisely because it can make such a difference in the quality of a person’s life.

It happened that one of Rabbi Akiva’s pupils became ill, and the Rabbis did not come to visit him. But Rabbi Akiva did visit him, and because Rabbi Akiva swept and sprinkled the floor before him, he lived. The sick man said to him: “Master, you have given me new life!” – Babylonian Talmud, Nedarim 40a

Lost in the Service?

At Mi Shebeirach, about 4,000 people whispered to their neighbor “I don’t know this one”

Rabbi Mike Harvey @Island_Rabbi, November 7, 2015

This is a tweet from Rabbi Mike Harvey, who was attending the Union for Reform Judaism Biennial Convention in Orlando, FL this past Shabbat. I loved this tweet because it communicates a great truth about attending services: in any given group, there will be some people who don’t know a particular prayer, or tune, or combination thereof.

The next time you are sitting in a service and you feel badly because you don’t know something, remember that you are not alone. A whole bunch of others in the congregation are lost, too: maybe not 4,000 of them, but plenty.

I have been going to services for a long time, and I have studied the services long and hard. Yet sometimes I will go to a new (to me) synagogue or service and I will be a little lost. I know generally where the service is going, but I may not know the tune that they “always” use at Synagogue Beit Yehudi, or I may not realize that they have a particular custom for a prayer. So I keep my eyes and ears open, and I learn. Occasionally I hope I will never encounter that tune again, but usually it’s nice to learn yet another way to sing Adon Olam.

Often students will come to me and say that they don’t go to services because they feel “stupid” in services. They don’t know the prayers or the tunes, and they are afraid everyone will know that they are new. Here are some thoughts about that:

  1. No one is born knowing how to daven [pray] the service. NO ONE.
  2. The only way to get better at services is to go to services.
  3. It’s perfectly OK to sit quietly and listen.
  4. It’s perfectly OK to hum along.
  5. No one will pay attention to how you pray, unless you sing very loudly off key or cross yourself.
  6. You have a right to be there, even if you never learn how to say anything in Hebrew.
  7. You have a right to be there, period.

So next time you are feeling lost in a service, think about Rabbi Harvey’s cogent observation. He was in a crowd of dedicated Reform Jews, and a huge number of them were unsure of themselves for a moment. Maybe it was a new tune. Maybe it was an experimental way of saying the Mi Shebeirach for the Sick. I have no idea. But I am so, so glad that he tweeted about it, because I get to pass that golden tweet along to you!

Image: U.S. Air Force Rabbi, Chaplain, Captain Sarah D. Schechter leads the evening Leil Shabbat service on Friday, Sept. 4, 2009 at Lackland Air Force Base’s Airman Memorial Chapel. Schechter was the first active duty female Rabbi in the Department of Defense. (U.S. Air Force photo/Lance Cheung)