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.

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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.

Prayer Before a Vaccination

Image: Adhesive bandage applied after a vaccination (ravipat/Shutterstock, all rights reserved.)

Ribbono shel olam, Ruler of all that is, I reach out to You before I take my child* to receive a vaccination. You are the author of all creation, from the largest beast to the tiniest virus. You have invested human beings with the intellect and skill to devise ways to defeat the diseases that plagued us in former days, and to seek out preventions and cures for those diseases that still trouble us. You have commanded us to care for our bodies and those of our children, and so I bring this child for a vaccination.

Protect this little one from fear and pain. Help me to convey confidence and calm to my child. Give skill and kindness to the person administering the medicine, and make it effective for the purpose intended.

Protect us from all harm, dear God! Protect us from viruses and bacteria,
and from the evils of ignorance, fear, and bad counsel. Draw us under the comforting wings of Your Presence, and at the end of this procedure, we will give thanks for all that we have received. Grant us health and peace of mind, not only to us, but to all who worry about health and how to find it.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, who created all things great and small, and who has invested human beings with skill and intelligence to preserve health in this world. Amen.

*This prayer can also be said by an adult going for a vaccination. Substitute “myself” for “my child,” etc.

Meditation on the Morning Blessings

Image: Sunrise in space. (Qimono/Pixabay)

I am very fond of a section of the morning service known as Nisim B’chol Yom [“For Daily Miracles.”] Often when I chant it, I am half-awake, clinging to the melody in an effort to keep my eyes open. It is a laundry list of blessings, things for which I ought to be thankful. As I wake up to the new day, these prayers wake me up to my life.

Each blessing begins with the same opening phrase: “Praise to You, YHVH our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who…” Each concludes with the good thing that I might otherwise forget to notice. (I normally say or sing them in Hebrew, but it is fine to use English.)

As I chant each line, I wake up a bit, because the mention of all these good things is itself a stimulation of the senses:

…who has given the mind the ability to distinguish day from night.

Yes, the brain is working! I may not know much, but I know it is morning. It’s wonderful to have a brain that can do that.

…who opens the eyes of the blind.

My eyes are open, maybe bleary, but they are open. I can see things. How wonderful is that? And it also brings up the question: are there things that I am refusing to see?

…who frees the captive.

I was taught that the ancient rabbis put this in because when we were asleep, we were captive to it, locked in our beds. But it also reminds me that freeing the captive is an important mitzvah. To what or whom am I captive? Whom might I have the power to free, if I opened my eyes?

…who lifts up the fallen.

I was taught that this has to do with the gesture of getting out of bed. I don’t just lift myself, I am lifted! As a person with arthritis, sometimes I wish a Divine Hand would lift me and get me past those first excruciating moments walking. However, so far I’m still getting up and I should appreciate that. I guess you could say this one is still a work in progress.

… who stretches the earth over the waters.

This one is a favorite. Just as the God in Genesis created the world, I am beginning my day by stretching… stretching… stretching. It’s the only way to get these joints to move, but it works! Another miracle.

…who strengthens our steps.

Whatever I face in the day to come, I trust that I can handle it, that I will be given or I will find the strength to do what has to be done. I do not walk forward alone; I will be surprised by the strength that finds me.

…who clothes the naked.

This blessing corresponds to the process of getting dressed, but it also points to the fact that I need to be God’s hands in my little corner of the world. Who’s going without something they desperately need? How can I help? Who might suffer embarrassment (nakedness) unless I am present to their need?

…who gives strength to the weary.

I love this one. The year I learned it was my year in Israel, and many mornings I would hear Chazzan Eli Schliefer chant these blessings at the morning service. He always did this one with special emphasis on “Koach” – strength – and I always chant it that way, too. Some of it is the love for my teacher, and some of it is that I have learned that if I boom out that word, I often will feel stronger!

…who removes sleep from the eyes, and slumber from the eyelids.

Some mornings I scrub my face with a washcloth, trying to get my eyes to wake up and work. Sleep can be such a powerful need that when I allow myself to run short of it, nothing will lift that heaviness. This blessing is a subtle and poetic reminder that God brings the morning, but it is up to me to get enough sleep!

…who made me in the image of God.

This blessing replaces an older pair of blessings in which men give thanks for not being women, and women give thanks that God made them the way they are. I like it because it reminds me to be grateful that I live in a time when I am not regarded as chattel by most of the people I encounter. I still need to stand up for myself and for other women, and for other people who are mistakenly seen as “less than” but I am grateful for the progress I continue to see in my own lifetime.

…who has made me free.

Occasionally this one stops me in my tracks. There are many people who are not as free as I am: people who are literally in prison, people who are in prisons of their own making, people who are held captive literally or figuratively by employers, people who are trapped in impossible situations. The first step in helping them is the simple act of appreciating my own freedom.

… who has made me a Jew.

I confess this blessing always gives me a thrill. I am delighted to be a Jew, even on occasions when that is not easy. I was not born a Jew, and I will never, ever take it for granted. Thank you God for making me a Jew – and buckets of gratitude to all the people who guided me to this day.

…who girds Israel with strength.

This blessing can mean so many things. It can be a celebration of the deep core strength of Am Yisrael, the Jewish People, who have managed to hang onto the covenant and to out identity through millenia of challenges. It can be a prayer for the survival of the State of Israel, when those millions of Jews are under threat. It can be a prayer for strength for any Jewish community in danger: it reminds me that we have endured for a long, long time. It also reminds me that we have to be responsible for whatever strength we have, to use it justly and wisely.

…who crowns Israel with splendor.

Suddenly, just before the end, the blessings take a turn for the mystical. I do not yet see the “splendor of Israel” – I do not yet quite know what that means. There’s something there about being an ohr l’goyim – a light to the nations – or perhaps it is about someday seeing the Holy One panim al panim, face to face. I don’t know. I count it as a blessing that I do not yet know everything.

Then finally, inevitably, because we are Jews, we conclude:

…who sanctifies us with mitzvot, commanding us to engage with the words of Torah.

When the sage Hillel was asked to summarize the Torah on one foot, he said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to any person. That is the whole Torah: go and study.”

And then the day can begin.

Note: This version of the Nisim B’chol Yom is from Mishkan Tefilah, A Reform Siddur. The blessings will differ slightly in other prayer books.

To hear these blessings chanted to the daily nusach (tune) try this link to the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue.

Jewish Diversity: An Online Class

Traditions of Judaism is an introduction to the things all Jews have in common as well as an exploration of the vast diversity in Jewish life. The goal of this course is to acquaint students with Jewish communities worldwide, and equip them to appreciate and interact with Jewish cousins whose customs are different from yours. Some students will also learn more about the histories behind their own family stories.

We’ll start with the things we have in common: Shabbat, the synagogue, and the prayer service. While each of these has analogs in other religions, the Jewish approach to Sabbath, to organizing ourselves, and to prayer are quite distinct. I’ll offer a model for understanding the prayer service so that you will be able to attend a service anywhere, in any language, and get something out of the service.

Then we’ll move on to explore many of the communities and traditions within Judaism today, and how they came to be distinct. We’ll look at Ashkenazi, Sephardic, and Mizrahi history and traditions, the Movements (Conservative, Reform, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Renewal, etc), American Judaism, Jews in Israel, and then come full circle to look at Jewish food traditions.

Here is a list of topics, by week:

  1. Welcome & Shabbat
  2. Synagogue & Siddur
  3. Ashkenazi Judaism: History & Culture
  4. Sephardic Judaism: History & Culture
  5. Mizrahi Communities: History & Culture
  6. North American Judaism (including Canada)
  7. Jewish Communities in Israel
  8. Judaism & Food Traditions / What’s Next for You?

The class is also available by via recordings if you are busy on Sunday afternoons. Lectures are only a part of the class; we use a Facebook group for discussions and all students are welcome to schedule online one-on-one sessions with Rabbi Adar.

Online Class: To sign up for the online class, go to its page in the Lehrhaus Judaica catalog. Begins Sunday, March 31, 2019 at 3:30pm, Pacific Time.

Berkeley Class: If you are interested in the offline Wednesday night class in Berkeley, CA, it has a different page in the Lehrhaus catalog. This class begins on Wednesday, March 27, 2019, at 7:30pm. The links will also give you more specific info on tuition, scheduling, and locations.

This class (either on- or off-line) is the Spring portion of a three part series that can be taken in any order.  (Fall: Lifecycle & Holidays, Winter: Israel & Texts, Spring: Traditions of Judaism.) Every class also works as a stand-alone entity, for those who already have some knowledge of Judaism but want to enrich their learning on a particular area. The course is not a conversion class; it is open to anyone who is interested in learning more about the varieties of Jews in the world and their traditions.

I love teaching this class – it’s my passion. If diversity of Jewish experience interests you, I hope you’ll join us!

Morning Minyan, 2018

Image: Me, giving the drash at morning minyan. Photo by Linda Burnett.

This morning I rolled out of bed fifteen minutes late. I pulled on some clothes and stumbled out the door, aware that I was leaving five minutes later than I’d planned. I was even grumpier than usual at that hour because I was responsible for the drash (lesson) and I was late.

I joined the commuters on I-580 and drive 11.6 miles into Oakland to attend the morning minyan at Temple Sinai. It’s a group of old friends who gather one day a week to study a little Torah and pray the morning service together. We start at 7:30 am and try to finish by 8 because there’s stuff to do and places to be.

I dropped this routine a couple of years ago because my meds left me too groggy to drive at that hour of the morning. But circumstances changed: the mass murder of Jews in Pittsburgh convinced me that I needed to get back to daily prayer, and not just by myself, so I have cut back the pain meds to attend minyan safely. I don’t like hurting this much, but I need the community and I need the prayer.

A reasonable person might ask, Why do such a thing? What does prayer said at top speed, hummed off key, possibly accomplish? Do I think it’s going to persuade the Deity to fix things?  

I know that God is not a magic vending machine.

I pray to remind myself of the person I want to become. I pray to remind myself of the community I want to build. 

Ma tovu, ohalecha Yakov, mishkanotecha Yisrael…

How good are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel!

Baruch Atah Adonai, rofe chol basar, umafli la’asot…

Blessed are You, Eternal, who heals all flesh, working miracles…

Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech haolam, she’ansani Yisrael…

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of All-that-is, who has made me a Jew…

Ashrei yoshvei v’techa…

Happy the ones who dwell in Your house…

…haMa’avir la’aretz v’ladarim alecha b’rachamim…

 …in mercy, You bring light to the world and those who live upon it…

V’ha’er eineinu, b’Torahtecha, b’dabek libeinu b’mitzvotecha…

Enlighten our eyes with your Torah, focus our hearts on Your mitzvot…

Shma Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad.

Listen up! Israel: the Eternal is our God, the Eternal is One.

Emet v’yatziv, ahuv v’aviv, v’norah, v’adir, v’tov, v’yafeh…

True and enduring, beloved and precious, awesome, good and beautiful…

on and on…

prayer after prayer…

Some say, how can you possibly get anything out of prayers that you recite so quickly?

To that I can say, as long as I keep repeating them, they will be a part of me. I recite them in the hope that they will become a reflex, a way of life, a habit of thinking and behavior. I say them so that I will be ready to act each time I am called on to be the hands of God in this world.

I believe that there may have been miracles in history but that I dare not wait for miracles. I believe that I am here on this earth for a brief time, and that these prayers help me remember how to use that time well. I say them with a minyan because in that circle we are Jews together, responsible for one another, remembering together, learning together. 

More than ever, it’s a big, mean, nasty world out there. There is injustice in plenty, people so wounded that all they can do is scream. There is work to be done. There are hands to hold. There are letters to write, conversations to have, work to do. I need to have my wits about me.

So I pray.

Prayer for a World Afire

Image: The Copernicus Sentinel-3A satellite captured this image of smoke from wildfires in California on 9 October 2017. (Photo from Wikimedia, click link for rights.)

I found myself praying this afternoon, “Please, God, could we just get a little time to breathe?” Between the shooting last night in Thousand Oaks, CA and the anti-Semitic incidents that have been pouring into the news for the last month, I felt overwhelmed.

That was right before the smoke poured south from the Camp Fire in Butte County. The fire is nowhere near here – 175 miles away! – but the air outside makes my throat close up and my eyes burn. Sunset was a muddy smudge against the horizon. So much for breathing.

Last week it was bombs and gun violence. This week it’s climate change and gun violence. Tonight giant fires burn in Butte and Ventura counties in California within 24 hours of a shooting in Ventura County that killed 12 people, including an officer from the sheriff’s department and a survivor of the mass murder in Las Vegas last year.

This is the new normal, apparently: things that once would have been the big news of the entire month or season are now piled up in a single day, disaster upon disaster. The most sickening part of it is that these are human-made disasters: they aren’t earthquakes or tsunamis. Every week, some guy grabs a gun and kills a bunch of people because he’s mad, or he’s sick, or he believes conspiracy theories, or he just feels like it. For the past two years, the changed climate in California and the rest of the American West has engendered monster fires, fires so big that they are visible from space.

So how should we pray about these messes that we human beings have made?

Jewish tradition does not encourage us to pray for miracles. It does not encourage us to look towards the heavens and say, “God, please fix it.”

Jewish tradition encourages us to work to make the miracles we need. When we stood trembling at the bank of the Red Sea, God scolded Moses for stopping to pray and said, “Get moving!” (Exodus 14:15) In that story, God may have stretched out “a mighty arm” as the Haggadah says, but we were expected to seize the hand offered and ultimately, deliver ourselves. We did not fly out of Egypt; we walked.

For too long, we have whined and scuffed our feet at the edge of these Red Seas we face today. We have wasted precious time arguing instead of acting.

Can’t get the solution to gun violence that we want? Push our elected officials to get whatever compromise might help a little. Enforce existing laws, Tighten what controls can be tightened. Fund more mental health care. Fund research. Explore every possible option. Do not simply blame it on “bad people” or “stupid people” or liberals or conservatives.

Let’s do the same with climate change. Let each of us push our elected officials to take it seriously, and do what we can individually. If our grandparents and great-grandparents could sacrifice to fight the Nazis, why can’t we make sacrifices to make the changes we must make to survive? WE – not “other people.” Let’s tell the billionaire business people and corporations that they get to make sacrifices, too. We are all in this together.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, who gave us brains and intended that we use them. Please give us the strength to save ourselves from ourselves.