Turn It Again, Ben!

Ben Bag Bag used to say, “Turn it, and turn it, for everything is in it. Reflect on it and grow old and gray with it. Don’t turn from it, for nothing is better than it.” – Avot 5:22

He may have one of the strangest names in Jewish history*, but Ben Bag Bag’s famous line is a favorite of mine. The “it” he refers to is the Torah. Read it over and over, he suggests, because there is always something new to find there.

I was reminded anew of the wisdom of this line this past Shabbat. On Yom Kippur, I went to the emergency room with severe difficulty breathing, gasping and gasping like a fish out of water. Tests revealed that my breathing was impeded by a number of blood clots in my lungs. Thanks to the skill of the doctors and nurses, I am breathing better now and feeling better every day.

Sitting in the service this week, I noticed a new way to understand a favorite prayer. In the context of prayers, the word neshamah (neh-sha-MAH) is usually translated “soul.” However, it may equally correctly be translated as “breath.” Suddenly the familiar prayer was transformed before my eyes:

My God, the breath You have given me is pure.
You created it, You shaped it, You breathed it into me,
You protect it within me.
For as long as this breath is within me,
I offer thanks to You,
Adonai, My God, God of my ancestors,
Source of all creation, Sovereign of all souls.
Praised are You, Adonai,
In whose hand is every living breath and the breath of humankind.

I have no guess as to how many thousands of times I have murmured that prayer, but it never before occurred to me that I was giving thanks for breath.

No matter how many times I say a prayer or read a line of Torah, I do not know when a new experience in my life will cause the words to light up with new meaning. Until last month, I did not fully appreciate the value of breath. I thought that “soul” was a more meaningful translation of neshamah.

Silly me.

—–

*Ben Bag Bag’s full name was likely Yochanan ben Bag Bag, and one tradition teaches that his name is an acronym for “ben ger” and “bat ger” suggesting that his parents were converts to Judaism. Another tradition teaches that he was himself a proselyte, the cheeky fellow who asked Hillel to teach him all of Torah while standing on one foot!

Update on the Missing Rabbi

You are probably wondering, “Did she fall into a hole? Did something bad happen? Where is that pesky rabbi, anyhow?”

I’ve been quiet, and I can’t promise I will be as regular as I like to be for a while yet. At first I was in the hospital, dealing with a health problem. Now I am home, dealing with the solution to the health problem. I much prefer the latter, which mostly falls under the heading of Adjusting to Side Effects of Medication. I will not supply more details because even though I’m a blogger, I do have a few boundaries. Anything I said would be TMI, trust me.

A lot has gone through my head. I finally returned to services on Saturday morning, and it felt so good that I intended to go back for Yizkor and the many lovely services of Shimini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, but the body didn’t permit. I needed to stay home. I’m still healing.

I am awed by the number of people who tell me they are praying for me, awed and grateful. Thank you if you’ve been praying, and if you intended to and didn’t that is ok (I think those prayers “count” too.) I feel surrounded by a cloud of Good Intention. It makes the rest of it much easier.

I wish you all a Shavua Tov, a good week. I’ll post again soon.

A Fragile Home

image

My body is a sukkah
A fragile home
It trembles and sways
unreliably
But the beating heart endures.

Ufros aleinu sukat shelomecha
Shelter us with your peace
In these frail bodies
Shelter us with love
That anchors us to earth
Shelter us with knowledge
And wisdom
Shelter us

Amen.

I am not going to be able to put up a sukkah this year, since I spent much of this past week in hospital. I am home now, recovering and thinking about the fragility of life.

The Inclusion Confession

I am reposting this vidui from Zeh LeZeh, the Ruderman Family Foundation blog, by permission of the writer. There are many reasons I am proud to call Rabbi Schorr my colleague, but none more than this prayer. If you are interested in Judaism and disability issues, I strongly recommend Zeh LeZeh (For One Another) as a wonderful source of learning.   – Rabbi Adar

By: Rabbi Rebecca Schorr

The central section of the Yom Kippur liturgy is the public confession known as the “viddui.” Originally patterned after the priestly narrative of Yom Kippur in Leviticus 16, the current iteration, with its poetic catalogue of sins, is the work of our rabbinic sages, who believed that the best way to have mastery over our behaviors is to recognize, name, and internalize our wrongdoings. Only then can we hope to overcome them. Following the traditional rubric, this new viddui is meant to help us recognize, name, and internalize the many ways we continue to exclude those in our community whose abilities differ from ours.

For the sin that we have sinned before You under duress and willingly; and for the sin we have  sinned before You through the hardness of heart.

For the sin that we have sinned before You by failing to include every member of our community.

For the sin that we have sinned before You by making it difficult for those who are different to find their places in our synagogues, schools, and organizations

and for the sin that we have sinned before You for thinking that we are doing all that we can.

For all these, O God of mercy,

forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.

For the sin that we have sinned before You by building ramps without widening doorframes.

For the sin that we have sinned before You for dedicating seats for those with mobility difficulties without constructing accessible bathrooms.

For the sin that we have sinned before You for installing assisted hearing devices and allowing speakers who believe themselves to have loud voices to speak without using the sound system

and for the sin that we have sinned before You for believing we are being inclusive when we don’t truly include all.

For all these, O God of mercy,

forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.

For the sin that we have sinned before You by using words to tear down rather than build up.

For the sin that we have sinned before You by not removing words from our vocabulary that are outdated, outmoded, and unacceptable.

For the sin that we have sinned before You for standing idly by while our family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers use words like “retard” or “retarded” to describe a person or situation

and for the sin that we have sinned before You by not speaking out when these words are  bandied about by rock stars, sports figures, and pop icons.

For all these, O God of mercy,

forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.

For the sin that we have sinned before You for staring at the child having the public tantrum and assuming he needs better discipline.

For the sin that we have sinned before You for judging that child’s mother rather than offering her a sympathetic glance.

For the sin that we have sinned before You by accommodating those with physical limitations while not making accommodations for those with developmental limitations

and for the sin that we have sinned before You by not providing support and respite for the parents and caregivers.

For all these, O God of mercy,

forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.

For the sin that we have sinned before You under duress and willingly; and for the sin we have sinned before You through the hardness of heart.

For the sin that we have sinned before You turning away from those who seem different.

For the sin that we have sinned before You by putting those who seem different into categories such as “less able” and “undesirable.”

For the sin that we have sinned before You for failing to recognize a piece of You in every soul.

For ALL these, O God of mercy, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.

Ordained by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr is a CLAL Rabbis Without Borders Fellow, a contributing author of The New Normal: Blogging Disability, and the editor of the CCAR Newsletter. Writing at her blog, This Messy Life, Rebecca finds meaning in the sacred and not-yet-sacred intersections of daily life. Engage with her on Twitter!

How Can I Bless, After a Stroke?

A regular reader asked: “Rabbi, I want to say a blessing before eating, but since my stroke it is hard for me to remember the words of all the blessings. Is there a “one size fits all” blessing which I could say?

First of all, good for you! Saying blessings before eating is a wonderful practice.

Because language provides many different challenges to people, here are several suggestions. Choose whichever you think might be helpful in your case.

  • You can say blessings in English if that would be easier for you. That is a perfectly valid option and not “cheating.”
  • For blessings over food, consider printing them out and putting the paper or card near where you eat. This page from MyJewishLearning.com would work nicely for that purpose.
  • The CCAR Press offers a nice app you can have as close as your smartphone or tablet: An App for Blessings
  • There is no official “one size fits all” food blessing, but you could try using these two if you like:
    • For a meal that includes any wheat product, the blessing hamotzi (follow link to the text) covers the entire meal, except for wine.
    • For a snack or meal that does not include bread, you could use the shehakol blessing (again, linked.) Some readers may point out that that isn’t quite traditional, but the literal words of the blessing seem to me to cover the subject sufficiently – definitely better than no blessing at all.
  • If you are sitting and looking at the food and can’t recall what to say, and your cue sheet isn’t nearby, here’s what you can do. Say: “Blessed are you, Adonai our God, who provides [name the food] for me.”
  • If there are other Jews present who know the blessing, invite them to bless, then say “Amen.”

Let’s take this one step farther, in case someone with aphasia searches this question and reads this. Let’s say speech is very difficult, or recalling words is difficult. You are ready to eat, and the blessing just isn’t there, or isn’t going to come out of your mouth. In such a case, I suggest you look at the food. Let the intention of the blessing enter your heart: appreciate God’s creation and this gift to you, God’s creature. Now eat. God knows what you just said with your heart.

Most of all, remember that this is not a contest. There’s a very famous story that applies here. I’m going to quote Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, since she tells it so well:

The story is told that once the Baal Shem Tov, the great Chasidic teacher, was leading a prayer service. Within the congregation there was a simple shepherd boy, who could barely read. He didn’t know any of the prayers. But as the Baal Shem Tov led the congregation, the boy was so moved that he wanted to pray. Instead of the words of the prayers, he began to recite the letters of the alef-bet. He said, “Oh God, I don’t know the words of the prayers, I only know all these letters. Please, God, take these letters and arrange them into the right order to make the right words.” The Baal Shem Tov heard the boy’s words and stopped all the prayers. “Because of the simple words of this boy,” he said, “all of our prayers will be heard in the highest reaches of Heaven.”

May our blessings, however fragmentary we feel them to be, speak our truths to the Holy One of Blessing. May the act of blessing itself bless us and our communities, near and far.

Pay Attention, Israel!

Shema, Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad!

Hear, O Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal is One!

When I served Temple Beth Solomon of the Deaf in Southern California, I worked to learn how to say my prayers in ASL, American Sign Language. As is always the case with translation, there were some tricky bits about making the words of the prayers truly available to the congregation.  The first word of the Shema, the central prayer of Judaism, is usually translated “hear.” The problem is that to say that word to a group of Deaf people would lose the very essence of the prayer, because it immediately excluded them.

This dilemma is handled in various ways in various Deaf Jewish communities, but at TBS, they use the sign for “understand” to translate “Shema.” It is a gesture that begins with a closed fist at the forehead, palm toward the face. Then the index finger pops up, thus:

(I am saying “understand” here because that is what the sign means in standard ASL.)

It can be very disturbing when a prayer is translated differently, or when we sing it to a new tune. I originally found this translation of the Shema to be very troubling, because I was accustomed to “Hear.” I still think that had it been my decision, I’d have gone with “Pay attention!” However, the unfamiliar translation made me start thinking: what best communicates the spirit of the Shema?

Now, when I say the Shema, I listen to it in Hebrew, in English, and yes, in ASL. Every new translation possibility has enriched my understanding of the raw Hebrew. Every possibility of meaning collapses back into

Shema, Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad!

What does “Shema” mean to you?

What are Kinot and Piyyutim?

Last year I spent Tisha B’Av studying Rav Yosef Soloveitchik‘s commentary on the kinot associated with the day.

What is a kina? To explain that, I must first explain piyyutim. Piyyutim are Hebrew liturgical poems. Some are as old as the 3rd century CE, and many are from the Middle Ages. They are elaborations on the themes and emotions associated with the prayer service, especially the services on special days. One is most likely to encounter a piyyut during the High Holy Days, because there are many famous piyyutim associated with those services, and at those very long formal services we often read a few of them.

To get the full effect of a piyyut, it is best to hear it read in Hebrew, because the music of the language does not come through in translation. Many piyyutim are acrostics (the first letter in each line spell a word.) They take the theme of a service or prayer and then bring in images and word-play from midrashim associated with the words in the prayer. That’s why studying them with a commentary can be helpful: otherwise the ordinary person will miss a lot.

Kinot (singular kina) are a particular kind of piyyutim.  They are liturgical poems of lament, formal expressions of grief. The great majority of them are associated with Tisha B’Av.

Here is the beginning of a famous old kina attributed to Elazar ben Killir, who lived in the 6th century CE (translation mine):

On this night my children cry and keen,
For tonight my holy Temple is destroyed, and my palaces burned.
And all the house of Israel tells my agony,
And cries for the fire kindled by the Holy One.

On this night my children cry and keen.

I find that the poets of kinot can help to bring a particular day in the Jewish year to life for me. Just from this one verse, it immediately projects me into the reality of a Jerusalemite in 586 BCE or 70 CE: I am sitting in the ruins of the city, listening to my children sob. They’re hungry. We’re in shock. The unthinkable has happened: God has turned on us.

The kina goes on to elaborate the trials of homelessness, and it accepts that in fact, we brought these evils upon ourselves. The forces of Babylon and Rome were merely agents of the Eternal, taking away the blessings we foolishly took for granted: home, security, peace.

If you would like to hear some kinot chanted, the Milken Archive of Jewish Music has a very nice collection of them for sale online, and it makes samples available for free listening.

Reading the kinot, I am struck by the fact that many of the sufferings we remember on Tisha B’Av are felt by far too many people in our own day: homelessness, hunger, and fear. May we rise from today’s fast renewed in spirit to relieve the sufferings of others!