Responding to Terror

Tikkun Olam
(Photo credit: AjDele Photography)

“He [Hillel] used to say, a boor cannot fear sin, nor can an unlearned person be pious. A bashful person cannot learn, nor can an impatient one teach. Those who are occupied excessively with business will not become wise [in Torah]. In a place where there are no human beings, endeavor to be a human being.” (Avot 2:6)

I am horrified at the bombing that took place in Boston today. Instead of assigning blame, spreading rumors, or ranting, I’m going to take positive action in the world: I’ve made an appointment to donate blood.

I challenge you: if you are feeling strong emotion, DO SOMETHING: give blood, give to the food bank, take some other action to relieve suffering. All the nattering on social media and all the pontificating on the TV will accomplish nothing, but the actions of a few good people could make the world a better place.

Invited to Your First Bris?

Image: An infant at a bris. (Photo: via wikimedia.)

You’ve been invited to a bris! If this is your first bris, there are some things that you should know.

1. WHAT’S A BRIS? A bris, or brit milah, is the ritual circumcision of a Jew. A bris is not merely a medical procedure, however. It is a symbol of the Jewish partnership with God, the covenant of Abraham. For the son of Jewish parents, a bris is usually on the 8th day after birth.

2. WHERE? A bris may take place in a home, in a doctor’s office, or in a synagogue. If you have been invited to attend as a guest, dress for the place: a bris at a home will be a bit more casual than one at a synagogue.  When in doubt about dress, it is ok to call and ask.

3. TIME? A bris is often scheduled for the morning, usually on the eighth day after birth.  The actual bris takes only a few minutes, but there will be schmoozing before and schmoozing and a festive meal afterwards, so allow an hour or even two.

4. WHO PERFORMS THE BRISA bris is performed by a mohel (moyl),  a Jew who has been trained specifically for this ritual. Generally,  liberal (Reform or Conservative) mohelim (mo-heh-LEEM) are physicians who have received additional ritual training. Orthodox mohelim may be doctors, or they may have graduated from a program that trains mohelim in surgical techniques, aseptic techniques, and Jewish ritual and law.

5. DO I HAVE TO WATCH?  No. The mohel will tell everyone where to stand, but unless you are the sandak (the person who holds the baby and delivers him to the mohel) you are unlikely to see much anyway. If blood bothers you, don’t look.

6. DOES IT HURT THE BABY? At most of the brissim I have attended, if the baby cried, it was when his diaper was removed (cold air).  An experienced mohel will do the circumcision as painlessly as possible. Most modern mohelim use a local anesthetic.

7. PRESENTS? It is not customary to give a present at a bris. However, if you wish to take a baby gift or something for the parents, it is OK to do so.  “Gag gifts” such as one might have at a baby shower  are in poor taste, however; this is a serious religious ritual.

8. GREETINGS “Mazal tov!”  A bris is one of the happiest occasions in Jewish life, when the covenant moves to the next generation.

9. NAMING A Jewish boy receives his name at the bris. Many parents do not call him by name until after the bris; before that he is simply “Baby Lastname.” If you ask about the name and they are cagey about it, that’s what’s going on – go to the bris and you will learn the name when everyone else does.

Pay attention! It’s Omer-time.

attention icon.

It’s Day 2 of the Omer and I look forward to counting when Day 3 arrives at sundown. Tonight it will be easy to remember, since I’m leading the Women’s Seder at Temple Sinai. Counting will be part of the haggadah, part of the script, and all I have to do is turn a page and my reminder will be there.

 

The rules for Omer Counting are fairly simple.  At sundown, or after dinner, or at 8pm (depending on local practice) one says the blessing and then counts.  For instructions on how to count the omer, and the wording of the blessing,  click this link.

 

 

If one says the blessing and counts at 8pm, fine.  If one forgets, but remembers in the morning, that person can count but cannot recite the blessing, and can go on counting with a blessing the next night.  If, however, one skips a day, then one is still obligated to count, but not with the blessing.

 

The Omer is a character building mitzvah. It is a long-run exercise in mindfulness, maintaining an awareness of what day it is and what time it is. And yet the only reward or punishment is the blessing and the knowledge that a mitzvah was performed.

 

How many aspects of our lives are like this? We pay attention and remember a birthday. We trundle along on autopilot, and fail to notice a depressed child, or the motorcycle in the lane next to us. The rewards for remembering are usually subtle, but when we forget to pay attention, the stakes can be high.

 

I wish you a mindful Omer season!

 

 

 

Hungry for Passover?

A pan of beef brisket, just out of the oven.
A pan of beef brisket, just out of the oven. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Let all who are hungry come and eat.

 

In a few days, we will read those words from the Haggadah.

 

Very soon, Jews all around the world will sit down to a seder meal, to listen to the story, to ask questions, to laugh, to share one another’s company, and to eat. Every family has its own favorite recipes: for my family, it is the brisket I slow-cook every year, 8 hours at least in a low, low oven, simmering with tomatoes and root vegetables until we all go crazy smelling it.

 

But there are other families, Jewish and not, where there will be no feast that first night of Passover, where the phrase “bread of poverty” is not simply a ritual observance. In 2011, over 50 million Americans lived in “food insecure households.” Stop and ponder: Fifty million Americans were unsure of their next meal last year. 

 

That means that if you live in the United States, somewhere within easy driving distance of your home, someone is going hungry.

 

I have learned, as a rabbi, as a person to whom people tell their secrets, that many of the hungry are not the stereotype in your mind. Some of them are your neighbors. Some of them do everything they can to keep their dignity, to not let on. But they line up for some free vegetables behind a church where they think no one will recognize them. They don’t tell their kids where the food came from.

 

Let all who are hungry come and eat.

 

How can we keep our words at the seder from being a cruel farce? In the long run, it will require political action, and we are yet to come to agreement about how to proceed about that as a nation. In the short run, there is much we can do, and it is easy to do. Find your local food bank (the link will lead you to an online tool). Send what you can afford. Food banks are organizations that do the buying and gathering of food for many local agencies, to make every dollar go the farthest. If you want your tzedakah dollar to go far, to be a “good investment,” give to your local food bank. It’s very easy to give: most food banks offer an online donation link.

 

It is a Jewish tradition to give tzedakah, to give charity funds for the relief of suffering, before every holiday feast. The Torah tells us in no uncertain terms, Lo ta’amod al dam rei-acha — don’t stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds (Leviticus 19:16).  People in our neighborhoods suffer from food insecurity – they are not sure of their next meal. It is up to us to act. It is up to us to make sure that the words we read aloud from the Haggadah are true:

 

Let all who are hungry come and eat. 

 

 

 

 

Seder Tips: Alone for Passover?

WordPress, the outfit that makes it possible for me to post this blog, also provides me with data about the Google searches that lead people here. Today one caught my eye and urges me to write: “how to have a seder alone.”

Jews generally celebrate everything in community. There are even some things we can’t do properly without a certain number of persons present:  say the Kaddish prayer, chant from the Torah, or get married, to name just a few. While there is no rule against reading through the Haggadah alone, “Seder” suggests a group of people around a table, telling the Exodus story together. It was designed by the ancient rabbis as an opportunity to learn and share with other Jews. Yet sometimes circumstances are such that it just isn’t possible to gather with friends for a seder. Here are some thoughts for dealing with Passover solo.

1. IT’S OK TO ASK.  In Western culture, it is generally considered impolite to “invite myself over” to someone’s house, especially for a meal. Passover meals are one of the exceptions to this rule. If you are going to be in a city but don’t know any of the Jews there, call a local Jewish institution (synagogue, the Federation) and tell them that you are alone for Passover and need somewhere to go for seder. Often they can provide a lead to a household where they look forward to keeping the mitzvah of a new person at the table. It’s a mitzvah for them, and a community for you, and you’ll almost certainly make some Jewish friends.  Good all around!  It is also ok, if you are a single in a Jewish community, to let others know that you don’t have a seder invitation. If you are a guest at someone’s seder table, be sure to read Seven Ways to be a Great Seder Guest.

2. COMMUNITY SEDERS. Many Jewish communities offer a second night seder at synagogues or a hotel for which guests sign up and pay a fee. My own community, Temple Sinai of Oakland, is offering such a seder this year (if you are going to be in the San Francisco Bay Area, you can sign up via this link.) Again, call local Jewish institutions and ask! This can be a more comfortable option if you feel shy about going to a seder at someone’s home.

3. TECHNOLOGY. If there is a group in another place with whom you have had the seder in the past, but you’ve relocated, what about Skype? Talk to your friends about setting up a computer near the table, so you can schmooze with the Jews, too.  If Skype is too much tech for you, consider a phone connection via a speakerphone on the distant table. No, it is not traditional or even halakhic, but it will provide an important connection on the holiday. Last year a number of Jews, including rabbis, found ways to use technology to enhance the seder, according to this Wall Street Journal article.

4. INVITE NON-JEWISH FRIENDS. OK, so you are in the middle of nowhere, no Jews around, and Skyping with old friends is not an option. What about getting some matzah, getting out the Haggadah, and inviting some Gentile friends over to share the story of the Exodus?

5. SEDER SOLO. If none of the above will work for you, the real necessities for your seder are some matzah, some wine or grape juice, and a copy of the Haggadah. If you have no Haggadah, a Bible will do.  Read the story. Eat unleavened bread. And then begin to make plans for next year, either in Jerusalem, or with some friends.

For an idea how to navigate a seder and not feel so alone, read For a Very Hard Year: The Movie Seder.

Chanting my way into Torah

Torah
Torah (Photo credit: quinet)

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.

 

Why Bless?

English: A photo of a cup of coffee. Esperanto...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.”

Baruch Atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haOlam, sheh noteyn ko-ach v’hesed l’mi shehmechin cafeh.

“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.