Meditation on a Tallit

Image: A young boy puts on a tallit. He is wearing tefillin as well. Image by 777jew.

One of my teachers, Rabbi Dr. Rachel Adler, wrote to me after I published the post Why a Prayer Shawl?, suggesting in her very gentle way that there is also a poetic side to the tradition of wearing a tallit, a prayer shawl, for morning prayers.  A tallit is much more than a holder for the ritual fringes, the tzitzit.

I knew this, but I was so busy giving the basic facts that I forgot the poetic side, which is just as important, perhaps more important. So here I offer to you a poem I wrote and gave as a bar mitzvah gift some years back. For its imagery, it draws upon the psalms and prayers one traditionally says before donning the garment. If you are curious about those connections, click the links within the poem.

Meditation on a tallit

In honor of Jesse Benjamin Snyder, Bar Mitzvah, 20 Cheshvan, 5764

 The psalmist tells us that before God made the world
God wrapped Godself in a robe of light, a bright tallit:
Light before the dawn of the world, light before the making
Of the first day, the first ray to split the darkness forever.

Like a mother wrapping a newborn, the wings of Shechinah
Envelop us: soft as silk, warm as wool,
All colors, all together, white light. We will wrap the mitzvot
Around our frail shoulders, against the winds of the world.

Touch the tzitzit: Notice the cord
that winds around, binding the fringe together.
Finger the knots. So may we wrap ourselves and our lives
Together in wholeness, together in holiness, strengthened in covenant:
Touch the tzitzit.

Arrayed in the majesty of the Holy, we are robed like royalty:
Tasseled front and back, in folds of rich fabric. We are commanded
To wear tzitzit, so that we will remember and we will act:
We are a nation of priests, working to mend the world.

The psalmist tells us that before God made the world
God wrapped Godself in a robe of light, a bright tallit.
God has woven me a tallit, to match:
I will wrap myself in mitzvot, to do God’s work.

Help: the Prayer Book is Too Heavy for Me!

Image: A Reform prayer book. Photo by Linda Burnett.

A reader asked:

Please, PLEASE post about whether us disabled people who can follow along more easily via electronic devices than by hoisting heavy (for some of us) books is OK. Since reading your posts on this subject, I’ve been feeling like I have been a nasty, red carbuncle in the congregation when I’ve shown up to worship alongside my loved one who has an upcoming bat mitzvah, and I’ve actually held back from going at all. I don’t want to be a blot on my loved one’s special day when that day comes!

Congratulations on the upcoming bat mitzvah service!

There’s no problem with using a tablet or smartphone app on a weekday. It would be rude to check email or follow the stock market in services, but of course it is fine to use a prayer book app or a  Tanakh/Chumash app.

Shabbat is different. For a “Shomer shabbes” Jew, using such a thing in synagogue on Shabbat would be deeply offensive. Your options break down by movement:

Reform: There are several good apps available for a Chumash (Torah portions and readings from the prophets.) If anyone questions your use of the tablet, just explain that it’s due to a disability and that should be the end of it. (As for the siddur, I’ve been informed that there’s a problem with the app, but I’m going to research that and update asap.) There is also a small, lightweight “Traveler’s Edition” of Mishkan Tefilah available.

Some congregations project the pages of the siddur and other service materials on the front wall or a screen. If the synagogue offers that sort of arrangement, you’re in luck!

Conservative and Modern Orthodox: They are unlikely to be open to the use of electronics on Shabbat, but if you call ahead and speak with the rabbi, it may well be that they have alternative accommodations to offer. One of my teachers, Rabbi Dr. Rachel Adler, reminded me that there are pocket-sized siddurim (prayer books) easily available, and perhaps getting your own lightweight copy is an answer. Certainly you can ask to use one at the synagogue, if you don’t own one.

Renewal and Reconstructionist: Call ahead and ask; the answer will differ from place to place.

When I made the original post (More Etiquette for Bar & Bat Mitzvah Guests) I was thinking of the people who come to a bar mitzvah and pull out the phone out of habit and begin checking email. That’s very offensive, and would be so on any day of the week. Using a tablet to follow the service is in the same category with using an electric wheelchair, and is OK on a weekday anywhere, and on Shabbat in some synagogues but not others.

In synagogues where using a tablet or smartphone isn’t an option on Shabbat, and there’s no lightweight option available, I’d arrange to sit next to an able bodied person who is willing to share, to hold their book where you can see it. You will then have the added bonus of a knowledgeable page turner, which can be quite helpful. Since one cannot know who is able by looking at them,  I’d phone ahead (WELL ahead)  to the synagogue and ask if they might be able to find a volunteer.

Another option: if you are not familiar with the service, you may find the prayer book more frustration than help, anyway. Give yourself the option of simply sitting and listening. If someone presses a prayer book on you, just say, “No, thank you.” There are many ways to be in a Jewish service – for more about that, see New to Jewish Prayer? 9 Tips for Beginners.

I hope that you are able to find arrangements that work for you, so that you can enjoy the occasion.

What if it Hurts to Stand in Services?

Image: Eight blue walking sticks against a background of green grass. Photo by https://pixabay.com/en/walking-stick-handle-cane-handle-415810/

And the sun rose upon [Jacob] as he passed over Peniel, and he limped upon his thigh. – Genesis 32:32

Aging, illness, and accidents are part of the human condition. We know that two of our three Patriarchs had disabilities. Isaac was blind and Jacob walked with a limp.

When chronic pain issues from some old injuries began to give me trouble my primary impulse was to hide my disability. Especially in services, I felt that it was important to stand whenever the congregation stood. That was even more true if I was the one leading services. So I stood, sometimes drenched in sweat from the pain. When anyone commented about the fact that my clothes were soaked and my hair was dripping, I’d change the subject.

To make a long story short, that was a sad and stupid “solution” to my problem. I have since acquired a mobility scooter and learned how to pray sitting down. I encourage my students to be gentle with their bodies: if a temporary or permanent situation makes a particular posture painful, the answer is simple: don’t do it. 

Pain doesn’t enhance Jewish prayer. I did not get extra points from God for sweating and trembling my way through the Amidah. Clinging to the furniture in front of me and trying not to cry did not make me a better Jew. Now that I sit when I need to sit, my prayers are more focused, more conscious, and I am better able to pay attention to the “still, small voice” within. (1 Kings 19)

Here are my suggestions, if standing for prayer is painful for you, or if you have any other disability that sets you apart from the congregation at prayer:

  • Own the disability. Hiding or denying disability won’t make it go away. As the brilliant blogger at The Squeaky Wheelchair wrote recently, “You can’t ‘do anything you set your mind to.'” I cannot sprout wings and fly. I cannot read minds. And at this stage of my life, my body cannot stand for more than 3 minutes without pain. Owning the things that are impossible means that we are freed to take on other things – things we can do.
  • Care for your body. Caring for the body is actually a mitzvah. Usually people envoke it to talk about eating right, getting checkups, and getting exercise, but it’s also about not abusing the body. Praying in postures appropriate for your body is indeed a mitzvah.
  • If you need help, ask. People like to help. After all, helping is a mitzvah. You deserve to get what you need to attend services. And if you need a ramp or whatever, talk to the leadership. Maybe it isn’t possible immediately, but if you don’t ask, you don’t get!
  • If you don’t want help, be as firm as you need to be about it. Sometimes people want to help, but they are inappropriate. I have learned to say “No thank you” firmly. Sometimes I have to escalate to a louder “NO!” or (rarely) even a very very loud “NO! STOP IT!” It’s sad that some people can’t learn from the first polite “no thanks,” but it is perfectly appropriate for me to be firm in taking care of myself if need be.
  • Use other ways to mark standing times as different. I put my tallit [prayer shawl] (when I’m wearing it) over my head when I pray the Amidah. I cover my eyes for the Shema. I sit near the aisle, so that I can touch the Torah as it goes by.Just because I’m sitting down, doesn’t mean I can’t use my hands or even my feet. With other disabilities, you may have different options, but explore those options to get the most out of prayer!*
  • You don’t have to be consistent. Some days I feel better than others. I used to worry that if I used the scooter one day, I couldn’t come in on just a cane the next. Or if I stood for the Torah service one week, I couldn’t sit down the next week. Guess what? No one gets to judge your disability, and you are not “faking” because you have a few good days.  Do what you need to do. If someone foolishly comments on it (“Oh! You are getting better!”) I generally say, “I have better and worse days. This is a pretty good one.”

*Readers, if you have different disabilities, but can offer suggestions on what you’ve done to more fully participate in parts of the service, I’d love to hear from you in the Comments. I can only speak from my own experience, and I’d very much like to learn from yours.

 

 

 

 

The Voice of Torah

Image: Julie Arnold chants Torah at Congregation Ner Tamid in Henderson, NV. At her side is Rabbi Sanford Akselrad. Photo courtesy of Julie Arnold.

The first record we have of anyone reading Torah from the scroll to a congregation is in the book of Nehemiah, chapter 8:

And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the Lord had commanded Israel. So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard, on the first day of the seventh month. And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law. And Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden platform that they had made for the purpose… They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. – Nehemiah 8: 1-4, 8

The Hebrew phrase sefer Torah [the book of the law] is still the way we refer to a Torah scroll. The sefer Torah from which Ezra read to the people was very similar, if not identical, to the Torah scrolls in synagogues worldwide today.

A Torah scroll has only consonants and spaces in it: imagine reading this article without vowels, capitalization or punctuation:

trh scrll hs nl cnsnnts nd spcs n t mgn rdng ths rtcl wtht vwls cptlztn r pncttn

Between the 6th and 10th centuries CE, in Tiberias and Jerusalem, a group of scholars called the Masoretes worked to make sure that the text was preserved properly. Part of their work was setting up a system of markings to show vowels, punctuation, and emphasis for the Torah text.  These markings are called te’amim. They are not written in the Torah scroll – nothing is ever added to a Torah scroll! – but instead they are available in a book called a tikkun korim [correction for readers] which the Torah reader uses to prepare – think “notes for homework.”

The te’amim function as punctuation and emphasis and they are expressed by the Torah reader in musical tunes called “trope.” Those tunes are established by tradition and will differ depending on where one’s teacher learned the craft. My te’amim teacher, Cantor Ilene Keys, uses one of the Lithuanian traditions for trope. (For more about that tradition, and about its place in my life, see The Chain of Tradition.)

So when we sit in synagogue and listen to a Torah reading, we are hearing not only the text itself but also the generations of effort to safeguard that text:

Ezra the Scribe copied down the scroll with great care;
his heirs are the soferim [scribes] who make each new Torah scroll
with such great care that it is usual for it to require a year of work.

The person reading the text “stands on the shoulders” of their teachers,
who guarded the text by teaching the te’amim and the proper use of the tikkun.

And each reader has spent significant time in the past week,
studying and preparing to vocalize the text:
learning the trope, learning the words,
practicing to say each word clearly and correctly.

Thus is the ancient text transmitted from generation to generation.

A Prayer for MLK Day

Image: Martin Luther King, Jr., speaking against the Vietnam War, St. Paul Campus, University of Minnesota, 4/27/1967. This image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

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A vidui is a Jewish confession of sin. We tend to associate this form of prayer with Yom Kippur and with the prayers of the dying, although a short vidui is part of the traditional weekday liturgy.

A communal vidui includes sins which I may not personally have committed, but which some in my community may have committed. By claiming them as my own sins, I underline that I am responsible not only for myself, but also for elements in our communal life which may have fostered the sin in our members.

I offer this vidui for my sins and those of my communities.

For all our sins, may the Holy One who makes forgiveness possible forgive us, pardon us, and make atonement possible.

For the sin of Arrogance, that makes it difficult to see our own failings

For the sin of Brutality, that makes it possible for us to stand by and think, “He must have deserved it”

For the sin of Credulity, in which we have believed “news” from unreliable sources

For the sin of Disregarding facts that were uncomfortable for us

For the sin of Executing those whose offenses did not merit their death, and for standing by as our civil servants carried out those acts

For the sin of allowing unreasoning Fear to dictate our behavior towards others

For the sin of Greed, underpaying for work or over-charging for services

For the sin of baseless Hatred, that demonizes entire groups of other human beings

May the Eternal forgive us, pardon us, and make atonement possible.

For the sin of willful Ignorance, not wanting to know things that are embarrassing to us

For the sin of Jailing massive numbers of people for nonviolent crimes, separated from opportunities to better themselves and their families,

For the sin of Killing the hope of young men who believe that their only futures lie in prison or the grave

For the sin of Laziness in speaking up, when we hear racist language

For the sin of Minimizing the discomfort of others

For the sin of Non-Apologies that didn’t express true sorrow

For the sin of Omission, when we failed to act upon our expressed convictions

For the sin of Presuming that someone has a particular role because of their skin color

May the Eternal forgive us, pardon us, and make atonement possible.

For the sin of Quiescence in the face of the racist behavior of others

For the sin of Racism, in all its myriad forms

For the sin of Self-congratulation for acts of common decency

For the sin of Taking umbrage when someone calls us on a racist word or act

For the Unconscious acts which have injured others without our awareness

For the sin of Violence against other human beings

For the sin of using Words in ways that perpetuate racism in any way

For the sin of Xenophobia, fearing and hating those who seem foreign to us

May the Eternal forgive us, pardon us, and make atonement possible.

For the sin of Yakking when we should have been listening

For the sin of Zoning out when we assumed this list wasn’t about us

For all of the sins of commission and omission, all the sins we committed consciously and unconsciously, for those that were simply accidents and those for which we failed to make an apology

May the Eternal forgive us, pardon us, and make atonement possible.

For it is through true acts of genuine repentance and a sincere desire to change that we will open the future before our nation: a future of fairness, justice and peace. May all troubled hearts be comforted, may all wounded souls be healed, and may we live to see the day when the scourge of racism is truly behind us.

Amen.

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This is a repost of an earlier post on this blog.

What’s a Bentcher?

Oy, oy, oy! First there is the question of spelling. Is it a bencher, a bentcher, or a bentscher? Answer: I’ve seen all three.

And no, it isn’t a piece of furniture, although that’s what it sounds like.

NFTY
My favorite bentcher

A bentcher is a little book or folder with the text of the blessings said after a meal, the birkat hamazon. It comes from the Yiddish word bentch, which means “to bless.” (Thanks to both Anne and Jeff, readers who corrected me on this.)

Bentch – to say or sing the birkat hamazon (blessing after meals.) Some may say, “It’s time to bentch,” meaning, the meal is over already, let’s bless and be done!

Bentch gomel – to say a blessing of thanks for delivery from danger. Always said during the Torah service.

Bentch lulav – to say the blessings that go with waving the lulav.

Bentcher is the book with the birkat hamazon in it. In a household where they bentch after every meal, it will likely be one of a half-dozen stuck in a napkin holder on the table. Some bentchers also have zmirot (zmee-ROTE) which are Shabbat songs for the table.

Some Jews carry a mini-bentcher that folds up to credit card size, to use when eating away from home.

Oh, and in case you are wondering, Hebrew for “blessing” is brakhah.

 

A Prayer for December 25

May all my Christian readers have a Christmas of holiness and love. And may the rest of us find a respite from our routine today.

Tonight’s full moon will be beautiful, reflecting the light of the sun. May it remind us that lights of celebration (of whichever holiday) are merely a reflection of the true light, the Source of light.

May each of us find the strength to reflect the light of heaven, bringing warmth and light to this poor world of ours. May all those who are suffering be comforted, and may each of us be a comfort to someone in need.