What is Rachamim?

Image: Infant in mother’s arms (samuel Lee / Pixabay)

Jews hear the word rachamim (RAH-khah-meem) at the worst moments of their lives, when they are mourning the death of a loved one. It is in the first line of the prayer for the dead:

…אֵל מָלֵא רַחֲמִים

El, maleh rachamim…

El Male Rachamim, Prayer for the Dead

According to Alcalay, a good Hebrew-English dictionary, rachamim can mean “pity, compassion, love… mercy.” I usually prefer “compassion” as an English translation, because it seems to me to come closest to the spirit of the word. Why would I say that?

The word for uterus or womb, רחם (REH-khem) has the same root consonants. “Compassion” in English is derived from two Latin words “com” (with) and “pati” (suffer.) It seems to me that one metaphor for the kind of closeness required for “suffering with” is the closeness of a mother and the child in her body. If you starve one, the other starves.

So when we say the prayer El Male Rachamim, we begin with the statement that God is full of compassion for us. In Exodus 39, God describes God’s nature to Moses thus, and we repeat the words back to God in the High Holy Day liturgies, when we are praying for forgiveness of our sins:

יְהוָ֣ה ׀ יְהוָ֔ה אֵ֥ל רַח֖וּם וְחַנּ֑וּן אֶ֥רֶךְ אַפַּ֖יִם וְרַב־חֶ֥סֶד וֶאֱמֶֽת ׀ זנֹצֵ֥ר חֶ֙סֶד֙ לָאֲלָפִ֔ים נֹשֵׂ֥א עָוֺ֛ן וָפֶ֖שַׁע וְחַטָּאָ֑ה וְנַקֵּה֙ לֹ֣א יְנַקֶּ֔ה פֹּקֵ֣ד ׀ עֲוֺ֣ן אָב֗וֹת עַל־בָּנִים֙ וְעַל־בְּנֵ֣י בָנִ֔ים עַל־שִׁלֵּשִׁ֖ים וְעַל־רִבֵּעִֽים׃

“Adonai! Adonai! a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; and pardons.”

– High Holy Day Liturgy

The very first attribute of God listed is rachum, compassionate.

We are commanded to be holy, like God at the very beginning of Leviticus 19:

וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying:

דַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־כָּל־עֲדַ֧ת בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל וְאָמַרְתָּ֥ אֲלֵהֶ֖ם קְדֹשִׁ֣ים תִּהְי֑וּ כִּ֣י קָד֔וֹשׁ אֲנִ֖י יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃

Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, the LORD your God, am holy.

Leviticus 19:1-2

The only way I know how to “be holy” is to imitate the attributes of God, to embody them in the world. It doesn’t matter what my theology is: whether God is a person or a concept. Torah teaches me to “be holy” because God is holy, so I will use the attributes we have been given for God as a model for myself.

The first item on the list is rachum, compassionate. When have I been compassionate? When have I experienced compassion? When have you? Those moments were holy: God was there.

So when I hear the prayer El Male Rachamim I remind myself that I must comfort this mourner, I must be the compassion of God, so that this will be a holy place.


How Does One Become a Rabbi?

Image: HUC Ordination, New York Campus (Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion)

I got a message recently asking, “I think I might like to be a rabbi. How does one become a rabbi?”

Here is what is involved in becoming a Reform rabbi. Other movements have similar processes, although I don’t know the details of those programs. (Perhaps some reader who is an Orthodox, Conservative or Reconstructionist rabbi will help us out, in the comments.)

  1. Language studies. As part of the application to Hebrew Union College, the Reform rabbinical school, I had to pass a written Hebrew exam demonstrating that I had the equivalent of a year of college Hebrew.
  2. Application to the school. It was a lot like a grad school application, except that there was also a psychological evaluation, and I needed to get a recommendation from my rabbi. (That included the unspoken assumption that I had a rabbi.) I traveled to the campus in Cincinnati for an interview with the admissions committee, who asked a lot of questions about my personal life and my plans for my life as a rabbi.
  3. Finances. If they said yes, then I was responsible for my expenses including tuition for a minimum of five years [according to the website, those are currently expected to be slightly over $50.000 a year, minus any financial aid]. Most of my class had a mix of financial aid and loans; many had quite a bit of student debt by ordination. There is no “part-time study” option; the assumption is that rabbinical study is a full time, 24/7 commitment.
  4. Year in Jerusalem. Upon acceptance, I was expected to make arrangements for a year of study in Jerusalem. I was single, but I was welcome to bring spouse (if I had one) and children with me. I left my cat with my best friend, kissed my college-age kids, sold my house and furniture, and got on a plane to Tel Aviv. I spent the year at HUC Jerusalem doing intensive study of Modern Hebrew, learning the fine points of Biblical Hebrew grammar, learning the services for weekdays and holidays, and getting a crash education in Israeli life, history, and culture.
  5. Four years minimum full time study at a stateside campus. I attended the Los Angeles campus; there are also HUC campuses in Cincinnati and New York. All rabbinical students take a regular course load of classes in Jewish texts and traditions, as well as professional courses in pastoral counseling, etc. They also work at internships, either serving small congregations or in other settings. I served a congregation in the Central Valley, worked for a year as a chaplain intern at a facility for Jewish elders, and served the congregation for the deaf in the San Fernando Valley. In my case, four years was not enough; for a variety of reasons, I chose to study in Los Angeles for five years instead of four.
  6. Ordination. At the end of the stateside study, if the faculty agrees, one is ordained to the rabbinate. Employment is not guaranteed: candidates enter the “placement” process and are interviewed by those congregations and institutions that are hiring. Most graduates find full time employment, but not all.

This is a process that requires a lot: sacrifices in time, finances, and much more. I had been to graduate school once already, and thought that rabbinical school would be similar. It was as demanding and much more: rabbinical school challenged me academically, intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, and physically. (Granted, I was 48 when I entered, and most of my classmates were in their 20’s.)

As I said before, the Conservative and Reconstructionist schools are similar. There are also nondenominational schools with programs that are more flexible. There are schools that require less of students, for instance, by not requiring time in Israel or allowing for part-time study. However, there is no reputable school that confers ordination without demanding some serious effort and long term commitment from students. For a look at some other schools and programs, this 2014 article from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency may be helpful.

View from the Watershed

Image: Logan Pass in Montana, part of the North American Continental Divide, the great American watershed (skeeze/pixabay)

Certain experiences divide our lives into a clear Before and After. I can count those days on my fingers: the birth of my first child, my move to California, the day of my conversion, and rabbinic ordination. They are days when my identity shifted, even though the shift may have been a long time coming. Before Aaron was born, I was not a mother; afterwards, I would never describe myself without at least mentioning motherhood. I’m sure you have your own list of watershed events, those days after which you are never quite the same.

The funny thing about watersheds is that you cannot see past them. I thought I knew what my first marriage would be like – and what I thought was mostly a fantasy. I thought I knew what motherhood would be like – and some wonderful surprises lay ahead. Whether things went well or not, after each watershed, the common theme remained surprise. We set goals for ourselves based at least to some degree on fantasies and assumptions, and then we live our lives.

11 years ago today (May 18, 2008) I stood in Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles, receiving semikhah (rabbinic ordination) from the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion. I had worked hard for that day for eight years: two years of intense Hebrew study, and six years of rabbinical school. For those six years, I lived without my family in Jerusalem and Los Angeles. There were big sacrifices involved.

Now I’m on the other side of that watershed, eleven years past it. As with the other watersheds, it’s all been a surprise: I never became a full time congregational rabbi, which was what I wanted when I applied to HUC.

Instead, I’ve served primarily as a teacher since 2008: I teach classes on basic Judaism to newcomers to Jewish community. I’ve developed an online presence via this blog and social media, also primarily focused on educating beginners and newcomers. My “Intro” classes moved online, too. I stay in touch with many of my students for years and years — one of the great pleasures of my life is watching them live their Jewish lives. This year I’m moving into a new phase of teaching by writing. I’m moving slower, but I have no less energy for the work. I have reached an age when many people are thinking about retirement, but I cannot imagine stopping now.

I’m grateful for the ways in which I have been able to serve, and very grateful for all the learners: students, readers of this blog, people with whom I’ve chatted casually. I love being a rabbi, even though very little of it has gone to plan.

What are the watershed moments in your life? Were you surprised at what you found on the other side?

The Tale of the Sick Dog

Image: My favorite picture of Jojo, who loves to sunbathe.

First, Jojo got sick. She threw up all over everywhere again and again. I felt sorry for her, and concerned. Her breathing was labored and she crouched as if in pain. She cuddled against me between retches, as if to implore: Help! None of this was her usual self; I was worried.

In the morning, I called the vet. Yes, they could see her at 3pm. Normally this would not be a problem but Linda and Jessica were both out of town.

I had to teach a class in Berkeley. I couldn’t take a sick dog, and didn’t know how long we’d be tied up at the vet. Moreover, Linda usually takes the dogs to the vet, because their office is inaccessible, and I have trouble mixing my cane with dogs. Jojo is heavy and would need to be lifted into and out of the car.

So. Many. Problems. I called Linda to get help thinking it through. She said, “Call Dawn!”

Dawn’s our friend and a fellow Jewish professional – aha! She could help me figure it out. She reminded me that a retired rabbi friend had offered to help me with classes – Yes! Then she offered to call him, so that I could work out the puzzle of how to get Jojo to the doc.

I called my son, who has two jobs and whom I try not to ask for things too often because he is busy and I don’t want to impose but sure, he would help, glad to help.

So I picked him up, and he picked the dog up, and we all three went to the vet’s office. He dealt with sad little Jojo while I got myself into the building and we saw the vet.

Turns out, Jojo is OK. No obstructions, no fever, just a tummy ache, likely from eating something in the garden – a Jojo experiment gone wrong.

There is a moral to this story. When we feel stuck, it is tempting to throw our hands in the air and say, “I can’t deal with this!” That is the moment to call upon friends: friends who can help, or friends who are calm. Get help thinking it through. Get help assessing resources.

I knew Rabbi Chester had offered to teach for me, but I needed to be reminded of it when I was in a panic. I knew Jim would say yes to helping, but I needed time to remember. I needed my whole village to make it through this puzzling, upsetting day.

And at the end of the day, Jojo felt loved (except by the vet, maybe.) I felt loved and cherished by my wife, my friend, my rabbi, my son, and the dog. I touched base with a friend I don’t talk with often enough. I got a chance to visit with my son. My class got a treat: Rabbi Chester is a wonderful rabbi and teacher.

Everyone in that chain of connections is part of my Jewish community. This isn’t the first time that they’ve saved me, and it won’t be the last. My synagogue is my rock; there are people I love and people I don’t love, but that is where I met most of the people who will show up for me when things are a mess.

None of us are equipped to live our lives like the mythical Marlboro Man, stoic and alone. Secular culture often idealizes the capable loner, but that’s bunk. We are social creatures, we human beings, and even more so, we Jews.

If you are reading this bitterly, and thinking, “I have no connections,” I offer you this: reach out to one person. Someone you know, someone not too scary, and exchange names with them. Be willing to show up for them, and then – voila! you will have a connection. Community helps with that, but it all starts with a friend.

I know you can. Years ago, I felt that I had to do everything alone. I spent most of my time drowning in anxiety. I still wind up back in that state, and I have to be reminded. That’s OK. I’m human too.

Milk, the Metaphor

Image: An assortment of dairy products. (Photo: philippoto/Shutterstock, all rights reserved.)

For as pressing milk produces curds,
    and pressing the nose produces blood,
    so pressing anger produces strife.

Proverbs 30:33

I’ve been playing with the metaphor of milk.

When we are born, we are all like new milk. We are raw: undisturbed by life. Jewish tradition teaches us that we are born good, but that we have the yetzer harah: a selfish inclination that we can learn to balance as we age.

Very few people remain like milk. People who do remain completely innocent, and completely simple. Most of us have experiences that change us from the pure milk into something different and more complicated. We also learn and grow, acquiring a yetzer tov, a good inclination.

If we acquire learning, we might become yogurt or kefir: a cultured milk that is both nourishing and digestible.

If we have painful experiences, we might become like cottage cheese. Cottage cheese is made by putting acidic bacteria into the milk, so that curds form, and the whey is drained away.

Cheddar cheese is made differently. The acidic culture is added, which causes the curds, then those curds are put under pressure. After a while, they are made into slabs, and slammed together so that even more whey is squeezed out, and finally they are pressed into molds to age. It takes some hard knocks to make cheddar cheese.

Some cheeses (not kosher ones) are made with rennet, the curdled milk from the inside of a calf’s stomach. They are, in a way, mixed with cruelty, then they are aged, and they become brie, or camembert.

Some cheeses, like blue cheese and Stilton, have rennet and the acidic bacterial culture, and penicillium mold added before they are allowed to age. Those cheeses become stinky and moldy looking, but some people really love them.

Then there is ice cream. It is the sweetest, richest cream, mixed with sugar and perhaps eggs, and churned while it is cold. However, if a dish of ice cream sits in the sun for even a short time, it melts.

And lastly, there is the milk that simply goes bad. It sits unused and uncared-for. It gets infected with bacteria that make it poisonous and smelly. That is spoiled milk, and it will make people sick if they drink it.

All of us are born simple and pure. Our experiences and our choices turn us into the people we become as adults. When I am dealing with a difficult person, I sometimes think: what kind of dairy product have they become? Has life been hard, and beaten them into cheddar? Are they ice cream? Or yogurt? Are they dangerous, or stinky and moldy but still nutritious?

What about you?

Blessing for Fragrance

Image: These are the irises in my yard, surrounded by sweet-smelling grasses. (Photo: Ruth Adar)

It’s springtime, and my garden is at its most glorious. Everything is blooming at once, and my heart fills up just to look at it, and the odor is amazing.

There’s a blessing for fragrant flowers and herbs, one that I love to say because it gives me a moment to absorb the wonder:

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech haolam, borei isvei b’samim.

We praise You, Eternal God, Sovereign of the universe, who creates fragrant flowers and herbs.

Who is That Person in the Mirror?

Image: Person aims a camera at a fragmented mirror. (pxhere, Public Domain)

Look in the mirror.  Look at the face that looks back at you.  What do you see?

Do you see a person

— who needs sleep?

— who needs to see a doctor?

— who drinks too much?

— who eats unhealthfully?

— who is too tired to know what she needs?

— who is depressed?

— who needs regular exercise and doesn’t get it?

— who hasn’t laughed in HOW long?

— who is secretly struggling with something he hopes no one else will notice?

— who needs help and won’t ask for it?

— who has been offered help but refuses to accept it?

— who is lonely?

— who is frightened about something?

— who hasn’t had a day off  in HOW long?

Modern secular culture encourages us not to take care of ourselves. We see advertisements for unhealthy foods, for “fun” gambling, for TV shows that are on late at night. We get caught up in the push for certain kinds of success. With our families scattered all over the country or the world, care for children or elders often falls on one or two family members, who get no help or relief. We avoid admitting to depression, mental illness, disabilities, because of the stigma they carry. We avoid asking for help because that would involve admitting that we need it.

These are sins against ourselves. When we fail to get enough sleep, good food, and enough exercise, we forget that our bodies are limited, that we are setting ourselves up for illness. When we fail to ask for or accept help, not only do we hurt ourselves, but we keep others from having the opportunity to do a mitzvah.

Ask: What could I change in my life so that I could get enough sleep? Help taking care of my aged parents or my child? Help doing whatever it is I need to do to take care of myself?

Then make a plan.  Do it.

If the answer to that question is, “Nothing,” or “I don’t know” then make an appointment to talk with someone who can help you find options: a rabbi, a therapist, a counselor, a friend.  Admit how hard it’s all gotten to someone who can hold that for you. Ask them to help you find some ways to lighten the burden.  Those ways exist, whether you can see them or not.

Make the call.  Do it.

Someone is waiting for you, and for me, in the mirror.