I’m preparing to chant Torah this coming Shabbat. It is not the easiest thing for me, but it’s good for me, because if I don’t use this skill, I’ll lose it. The process of preparing the portion to chant takes me into a deep analysis of the text, a dream-place where the text transforms before me.
Yes, there are some texts that bore me, at least before I’ve studied them. This one is a case in point: Exodus 30, the directions for the small golden altar for burning incense. The Torah goes into excruciating detail about its dimensions and construction. When I first read it, I sighed. Not only do I need to chant it, I need to preach on it, and I had the feeling it was going to be a job to get a good drash out of a small piece of furniture.
So I began: first translating the passage for myself. It’s very straightforward, almost a cookbook. Nothing catches my eye. Then I begin to chant from the tikkun, the book that has all the marks to designate vowels, punctuation, and melody (the Torah scroll itself has none of those.) I go one short phrase at a time, singing it over and over until I’ve got it. Periodically I stop to figure out how to fit phrases together. Still boring: details, details. Details, details, details. Yawn.
Then I begin to notice how the melody comments upon the text: emphasize this word, that phrase. Make a sort of soprano hiccup (geresh!) on one little preposition. Gradually the text warms up, or I warm up to it. The little incense table begins to take shape, and glow.
Sometimes Torah is transparent. More often is it opaque. All I know is that if I will spend time on it, invest my heart in it, open my soul to it, every time it will come to life before my eyes.
As a regular blogger, I’m interested in seeing the statistics that wordpress supplies about my blog, especially how many people read the blog, and what brings them here. Today I noticed that one person reached the blog by googling: “blessings for people who make coffee.”
Sadly, I doubt they found what they were looking for here (but maybe they found something else useful – I hope so.) But it set me to thinking: yes, a person who makes coffee for others is a blessing! And perhaps we should bless them.
Blessings in Judaism are curious. We call them blessings because they begin with the word, “Baruch” (bless). But the Object of our blessing is always God: Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of Time&Space, who…[fill in the blank here.] So a blessing for the person who makes coffee might run like this:
“Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of Time&Space, who gives strength and kindness to the person who makes coffee.”
“But!” you are thinking, “Why bless God, when Sally made the coffee?”
One answer to this is that Sally’s making coffee, but God made both Sally and the coffee. We bless God to sanctify the details of our lives – not because they weren’t holy before, but because by blessing, we are noticing the holiness already in them.
Another answer is that we bless God in those circumstances because we see a little bit of the Holy One in Sally, with her strength and kindness to make coffee for others in the morning.
Blessings don’t mean that we think there is an Old Man in the Sky who needs blessing. Blessings mean that we notice holiness before us in the world, and know that holiness is a treasure worth celebrating.
I’m writing this for the unaffiliated or secular Jewish parent whose child has just announced that he or she wants a bar or bat mitzvah. You were not dreaming of this, or planning for it. Perhaps your own bar mitzvah was a bad memory, or never happened at all. Perhaps no girl in your family has ever had a bat mitzvah. I’m writing this to suggest some things to think about as you ponder your response.
1. BASIC INFO: For a basic article about modern b’nei mitzvah (that’s the plural) check out Bar and Bat Mitzvah 101 from MyJewishLearning.com. That site is generally a good source of info. They are friendly and respectful of all movements of Judaism (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, etc.)
2. WHY DOES YOUR KID WANT TO DO THIS? Your first response to your child might be to ask “Why?” The answer may surprise you. It might be that they want a party and presents, but it might also be that they want to explore their heritage.
“A Party and Presents!” – It’s reasonable, then, to say, “You realize there is a lot of work involved?” Typically, preparation for a bar mitzvah involves at least 2 years of study with a teacher. Most kids are not willing to take on a two year project with a steep learning curve just for a lark. If after learning what’s involved, they still want to do it, something more is going on, maybe:
“I want to learn more about Judaism.” or “I’m a Jew, I want to be Bar/Bat Mitzvah!” – Your child is asking you for a grounding in a key aspect of their identity. This is an opportunity, not only for them but also for the rest of the family. Learning is not a commitment to particular kinds of observance; it is simply gaining information so that you can make informed choices about observance. If you have always thought Judaism was bunk, or worse, what’s the harm in actually checking it out? If your experience with it was bad, think about exactly WHAT was bad, and then you can avoid those issues (more about that in a moment.)
3. BUT WHAT IF I AM NOT RAISING MY CHILD AS A JEW? If your child is being raised in another religion than Judaism, then Bar or Bat Mitzvah is not appropriate for them. Talk with your child about why you made the choice to raise them as (fill in the blank here). Share your values and your feelings with them honestly. Own your choices. Parents make many choices for children when they are little: religion, medical choices like vaccination, schools, bedtime, where we will live.
4. HOW DO WE EXPLORE THE POSSIBILITIES, IF WE WANT TO MOVE FORWARD? Your first step should be to call some local synagogues. If your child is ten or younger, most synagogues have regular programs that you can enter. If your child is older than ten, still call the synagogues and talk to them about your options. If there is no local synagogue, then you need to find a rabbi or Jewish teacher to help you. For help locating a rabbi, read Seven Tips for Finding Your Rabbi. If your own experience with Jewish education was miserable, make an appointment to talk with your rabbi or the educator at the synagogue. Share your worst fears with them. Talk to them about how the two of you can partner to make sure this is a good experience for your child. (Keep in mind, though, that “good experience” is not necessarily “effortless” or “easy.” We value the things for which we make an effort.)
5. ISN’T IT EXPENSIVE? I can’t give you an exact figure. You may need to join a synagogue. Lessons of any kind cost money. However, a Bar Mitzvah party does not have to be a Hollywood blow-out. Again, what you are really buying is a learning opportunity for the whole family to explore your roots. You may be pleasantly surprised with what you discover along the way. If money is truly tight, then you should know that many synagogues provide “dues relief” for those who cannot afford a full membership. Membership in the right synagogue can actually be a wonderful deal. For more about why anyone might want to belong to a synagogue, read Why Join a Synagogue?
6. BUT I DON’T KNOW MUCH ABOUT JUDAISM! HOW WILL I KEEP UP WITH MY CHILD? Many people do the bulk of their Jewish learning as adults. When you are looking for a place for your child to learn, ask about the adult learning opportunities there. Also, if you join a synagogue, you will meet lots of other families who are following their children on the learning curve. One of our greatest sages, Rabbi Akiva, did not begin learning until he was an adult. It’s OK to be an adult beginner! (And for more information on topics for adult beginners, you can click on “Especially for Beginners” to the right on your screen. Teaching adult beginners is the heart of my own rabbinate.)
7. MY SPOUSE IS NOT JEWISH! WILL PEOPLE BE MEAN TO US?– Many American synagogues of all denominations reach out to interfaith couples and are ready and waiting for your family. Be honest about your concerns when you look for the right place for your child to learn. If you don’t like what you hear, call a different place. Your entire family deserves to be treated with respect when you are educating a Jewish child.
Parenting is one surprise after another. One of the life-enriching aspects of parenthood is that our children will lead us into learning experiences we never expected to have. My own sons have led me to learn about electronics, to improve my Spanish, to learn about mental illness, and to learn what it takes to survive as a working musician. Some of those things were fun. Others were hard. I hope that if you decide to take your child up on this challenge to engage with Jewish life, that Torah enriches your life and that of your family beyond your wildest dreams.
Mourning is a time like no other. Someone with whom we had a close connection has died, and our world is out of balance. We have spent years depending on that person, or supporting that person, and interacting with that person and suddenly they are … GONE. On top of that, there is much to do: arrangements must be made, legal requirements fulfilled, and all while we are stunned by the news.
For American Jews, it is particularly confusing because as with many things, we are pulled in two directions. American secular culture largely avoids mourning, and encourages us to be self-sufficient individuals, bravely getting on with life with as little disruption as possible. The dominant Christian religious culture suggests that loved ones have gone “to a better place.”
Jewish tradition takes a different path. It structures mourning as a staged process undertaken by those who are closely related to the deceased: children, siblings, parent or spouse. This definition of “mourner” can be updated to reflect the needs of all kinds of families, but the principle behind it is that we recognize some relationships as especially close. If you have lost someone whose absence will significantly alter your life, then consult with your rabbi for help in following the Jewish mourning process.
1. ANINUT is the time from the death itself until the burial is completed. This is a time of concern for the body of the person who has died. Because it is so important in Judaism to treat the body with respect, the mourners have no responsibilities other than to make the funeral arrangements. They are relieved from other ritual requirements, and all social niceties. They are also assumed to be in deep shock and mourning, and friends should be available to assist if need be but should not intrude. Persons in aninut do not go to work, and are not responsible for other commitments. They may tear an article of clothing and then wear it during shiva, or pin a torn ribbon to their clothing, to express their feelings of loss.
2. SHIVA begins at the moment the body is safely laid to rest, and continues for a period after that, usually a week. (For calculations for the exact length of shiva when holidays are near, consult a rabbi.) Mourners in shiva remain at home, and friends help them with the necessities of life. Friends visit to offer comfort. (For more about the mitzvah of a shiva visit and what to say to a person in shiva, see Five Tips for Shiva.)
If you are the mourner, it is OK to ask for what you need, even if what you need is silence. When you are sitting shiva, you are not entertaining. People may come to the house, but you do not have to look nice or have a neat house. It is OK for other people to do your dishes and to bring food to you.
Often American skimp on shiva, saying that they need to get back to work, or they don’t want to be any trouble. If you possibly can, let shiva do its work. It can be boring and uncomfortable, but its purpose is to allow you time and space to mourn. You have suffered a loss. It is OK to take time to acknowledge that loss.
3. SHELOSHIM is the 30 days after burial, including the seven days of shiva. At the close of shiva, mourners leave the house again. Gradually, mourners will return to the routines of life.
4. MOURNING A PARENT goes on even longer, for eleven months or a full year, depending on local custom. One says Kaddish for the parent.
5. UNVEILING the tombstone (matzevah) is a ritual that became common in the 19th century, when close family gathers at the grave to unveil the marker and read Psalms and Kaddish. Timing of the unveiling depends on local custom: in some communities it is done at one year, in others at the end of sheloshim, and in others, at any convenient time at least a week after burial. It is traditional to visit the graves of loved ones, and to leave a stone on the tombstone as a sign that someone has visited.
6. YARTZEIT is the observance of the anniversary of the person’s death. (The first yahrzeit is observed at the anniversary of the burial; after that, it’s the anniversary of death.) Mourners say Kaddish for the person and it is the custom in some places to burn a yahrzeit candle. It is an opportunity to remember the person, and if the feelings are still there, to grieve in the arms of one’s community.
7. YIZKOR is a memorial service attached to the major Jewish holidays. It means “May [God] remember” but really, it is an opportunity for us to remember, and to have an opportunity to feel the feelings that may come up with memory. Yizkor takes place as part of services on Yom Kippur, on Shmini Atzeret, on the last day of Passover, and on Shavuot.
It takes time and effort to rebuild our lives after a significant loss. Jewish tradition allows us the time and space to fully mourn, then put away mourning for a return to life, all the while honoring the memory of the deceased. Remember that if you have to deal with people who want you to “get over it” and get back to work or social obligations, Jewish mourning is a religious obligation as well as a psychologically healthy approach to dealing with loss.
May you be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.
1. CRADLE TO GRAVE JEWISH EDUCATION OPPORTUNITIES. Whether you are the parents of toddlers or a grandparent yourself – or a single person who wants to deepen their Jewish life – the most likely place to find opportunities for Jewish learning and growth is your local synagogue. Even if formal classes aren’t offered, you can find other Jews interested in film, or mysticism, or cooking, or whatever your heart desires.
2. RABBI ON-CALL. Not every congregation has a full time rabbi, but those who do offer you a rabbi you don’t have to shop for in a crisis. Some things you can schedule ahead of time, but most of life’s most stressful times do not come at our convenience. Also see above: a rabbi is a teacher.
3. EXTENDED FAMILY. Many of us find local extensions of “family” at synagogue, people who can be there for us in good times and bad. When our relatives live far away, it can be good to have some family nearby.
4. OPPORTUNITIES FOR PERSONAL GROWTH. Do you have talents you long to share? Synagogue communities can be a place to learn and cultivate leadership skills, music skills, and public speaking skills. They are a place to find support for parenting challenges and for “sandwich generation” stresses. It is a community of shared values in which we can grow to be our best selves. And yes, a synagogue is the place for Jewish spiritual growth via worship and learning.
5. BUILD JEWISH COMMUNITY. In every generation, some Jews have kept the hearth warm at synagogue for newcomers. If you join a synagogue, you support the Jewish future by keeping the doors open for Jews.
I learn Torah because I think it offers a framework for living my life.
If I am busy observing 613 mitzvot [commandments] there is not much time or energy left for getting into mischief.
If I am busy blessing the food that I eat, the mitzvot I perform, and the ordinary pleasures of life there’s very little time left for being unhappy.
If I fill my days with chesed [lovingkindness] there will be no room for kveching.
If I fill my mouth with blessings there will be no room in it for lashon hara.
I learn Torah because it offers me a framework in which I can explore my options and make choices to live a better life. When I have a tough decision, I look to the tradition for the many discussions on that subject: what did the early rabbis have to say about it? What did Maimonides teach? What have more recent scholars had to say to people in my situation? What do my rabbis think? And then I use my brain, and I decide for myself.
But without the study, without the Torah, I have to make it up all on my own. There are things I won’t think of until it is too late. There are things I might never have considered. But when I have the Torah at my back, I know that while I may still make a mistake, I will know how I got there, and the tradition will still be with me to show me how to take responsibility and repair any damage.
With mitzvot [commandments] to shape my life, and the Torah to inform my choices, I believe I have a chance at making a real difference in the world.
I learn Torah because people much wiser than I found wisdom there.