First Funeral

 

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The first funeral at which I officiated by myself took place at graveside on the afternoon before Kol Nidre.

I remember it vividly.  My feet were planted uneasily on the distinctive grass typical of cemeteries, a spongy carpet of thatch. Before me was a plain wooden casket suspended over a hole in the ground. The raw earth looked like a wound; it disappeared into darkness below. The Las Vegas sun beat down on our heads and a hot wind ruffled the pages of my rabbi’s manual.

The dead woman’s name was Ruth. The eerie quality to saying my own name at graveside was magnified by the fact that I did not know this Ruth at all, nor did I know her family. I was simply performing a mitzvah. I was the newest rabbi in town, and it was my turn in the rotation to provide funerals for unaffiliated Jews. I had assembled a hesped [eulogy] from the recollections of her relatives, but they were taciturn people and I had not yet developed much skill for drawing stories out of strangers. Skills or no, the hesped had the proper effect: the meyt [dead person) was remembered with dignity and the mourners began their process of grieving with tears.

Fortunately they did not know that the rabbi was well and properly freaked out.

I hardly remember the Kol Nidre service that night. My place in it as the new part-time assistant was small, and I was free to pray as long as I remembered to sit like a lady and keep a calm face on the bimah (front of the sanctuary.) So I sat like a lady, processing the afternoon’s revelation: that someday some other rabbi would stand by a hole in the ground and say those words before they lowered my body into it. Someday I would die and they would bury me. It was unpleasant, but as I worked through it, I realized it was a gift. That visceral knowledge of my own mortality taught me that I have no time to waste on this earth.

The Psalmist wrote that our “days are like grass.”  Most of the time we are able to avoid that knowledge. Thinking about it too much isn’t healthy. Thinking about it too little is just as bad.

Someday I will die. What must I get done before that day comes?

 

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Sunshine!

sunshine-award

What a nice surprise!

I’d never heard of the Sunshine Award until this blog received a nomination for it earlier this week from writer, editor, and history researcher Serendipity Chronicles. According to SC:

The Sunshine Award honors writers who are working to “light up the dark corners” of readers’ minds. It’s a true writer’s honor – a high five given from one scribe to another not just in appreciation of his or her written work, but in recognition of how challenging it can be to put that work out there for all to see – and to keep putting it out there even when the writing Muse is off on a vacation cruise.

Most importantly, it’s an affirmation of the world view that showing kindness is a sign of strength, not weakness.

Thank you to Serendipity Chronicles for nominating me – how very kind of you to give me this encouragement!

Perhaps the best prize is the opportunity to nominate other wordpress blogs for the Sunshine Award.  My nominees are:

Hope Avenue

Sojourning With Jews

It’s Just Something to Think About

The Fat Chick Sings

rachelmankowitz: the cricket pages

and yadda yadda yadda… I made aliyah

The Squeaky Robot

Rules for Nominees of the Sunshine Awards 

  1. Thank the person who gave you the award in your blog post.
  2. Include your own responses to the Q&A below.
  3. Pass on the award to 10 – 12 deserving and inspiring bloggers, give them the good news, and link to their blogs.

Q&A for Sunshine Award Nominees (replace the existing answers provided by Serendipity Chronicles and include the updated Q&A as part of your own post in which you accept the award):

  • Favorite color? Chnges constantly.
  • Favorite animal? Poodle.
  • Favorite number? Five.
  • Favorite nonalcoholic drink? Lemonade.
  • Favorite alcoholic drink? Guinness.
  • Facebook or Twitter? Twitter
  • My Passions? My spouse, my sons, teaching.
  • Giving or Receiving Gifts? Both equally.

12 Facts about the Month of Elul

Image: A man sounds a shofar at a synagogue in Minnesota. (Wikimedia Commons)

  1. Elul is the name of the last of 12 months in the Jewish Calendar.
  2. Elul is not mentioned in the Bible.
  3. Most years it begins in August of the secular calendar. In 2013, it begins at sundown on August 6.
  4. Traditionally, it is a time for looking back over the year past, taking stock, and making apologies and amends for mistakes and wrongs.
  5. For religiously observant Jews, it is a time for teshuvah (click the link for more about teshuvah.)
  6. Both of these forms of retrospection are a preparation for the High Holy Days.
  7. During Elul many synagogues sound a blast on the shofar [ram’s horn] at morning services. The sound of the shofar is said to awake the sleeping soul.
  8. Many observant Jews also recite Psalm 27 every day from 1 Elul through Hoshana Rabbah, the end of Sukkot.
  9. Selichot, special services of penitential prayers, are offered during Elul.
  10. Many Jews visit the graves of relatives or friends during Elul. It is a form of respect for the dead, and also a reminder that our lives are finite (a theme of the High Holy Days.)
  11. A greeting for Elul is “K’tiva chatimah tovah” – “May you be written and sealed for good.” This is a reference to one of the major metaphors of the High Holy Days, the Book of Life. 
  12. For more about Elul, check out this article by Rabbi Reuven Hammer.

Why Do Good?

British Library Add. MS 59874 Ethiopian Bible ...
British Library Add. MS 59874 Ethiopian Bible – Matthew’s Gospel (Ge’ez script) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Why do good?

Recently I read a wonderful post by John Scalzi on his Whatever blog about Matthew chapter 6 (New Testament), the famous Sermon on the Mount. In it, Jesus is critical of those who do good in order to be seen doing it, arguing instead that a wise person will “lay up treasures in heaven” rather than pile up treasure in this life, or collect goodies in the form of other people’s approbation. Scalzi, who sometimes uses his blog as a soapbox for promoting causes, questions his own motives in doing good. Finally he concludes:

I want to be seen as good. Matthew chapter six reminds me how much better it would be to actually be good, first and always.

All this led me to ask myself, why do I do good? Why do I “observe mitzvot” [keep sacred duties], as we Jews put it?

I do not think an afterlife very likely, and should I wake up in either heaven or hell I will be very surprised to do so. However I do believe  that we have it in our power to make heaven or hell here on earth, during our natural lives. Some of us have the power to make this life heaven or hell for those over whom we have a measure of power: children, employees, or dependents. All of us can make life heaven or hell for those who are stuck with us: family and neighbors.

When I choose to do good, like giving money to the food bank, I expand the reach of the heaven I make. I put food in the mouth of someone I do not know. When I give blood to the blood bank, I share my health with some unknown person.

When I choose to be polite or kind to the harried checker in the grocery store, I expand the reach of heaven to them: it is a measure of heaven to be recognized and respected as a human being.

When I choose to vote in such a way that I believe the greatest good will be served, even if it is at the expense of my own interest, I expand the reach of heaven on earth.

None of this requires metaphysics.

My understanding of Torah is that it is a body of teaching about the best methods for making the world better for myself and everyone else. The scroll itself is not always clear on the details or the execution.  We are still engaged in the struggle to apply it all properly, but it is the system that makes the most sense to me, whether or not there is an afterlife, whether or not there is a person named That Name We Don’t Say.

Why do I try to do good? Because suffering is lousy.  I will sleep better if I honestly believe I am at least trying to reduce the suffering in the world.

When asked to teach the whole Torah while standing on one foot, Hillel said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to any person. All the rest is commentary. Go and study.”

All the rest is commentary. Go and study.

Jewish Astronomy: The Moon

Full Moon Over Jerusalem
Full Moon Over Jerusalem (Photo credit: zeevveez)

Did you know that you can tell where you are in the Jewish month, just by looking at the night sky?

Every Jewish month begins on the New Moon, when the sky is darkest. We call that day Rosh Chodesh, “Head of the Month.”  In ancient times, that’s how the calendar was set: experienced Jews would look at the sky from the Temple Mount and decide when it was the New Moon. They would then make the official announcement of the arrival of the new month.

So if the moon is dark, it’s a new Jewish month. To find out which month, consult a Jewish calendar.  <- If you click on that link, it will take you to the niftiest Jewish calendar imaginable. If I could access only one website, it would be hebcal.com, no kidding.

If the moon is waxing (appearing to grow larger) then we are in the first half of the month. If it is waning (appearing to grow smaller) a new month is coming. Some Jewish holidays (Purim and Passover, for example) begin near the 15th of the month: no surprise there, it’s the Full Moon!

This is also the reason that the Jewish calendar sometimes seems crazy relative to the secular calendar. The Jewish year is lunar (matched to the moon) with periodic adjustments to keep it in sync with the seasons (the solar year.) So some years the holidays seem “early” or sometimes “late.” Really, they’re right on time.

The best thing to do is to get a Jewish calendar and use it. But some things you can know just by looking at the sky: “It’s Rosh Chodesh!” you can say, whenever you see the New Moon.

“Why bother with a separate calendar?” some might ask. The beauty of the Jewish Calendar is that it brings us into sync with the rhythms of nature.  Days begin at sundown, not at a mark on a clock. Months begin when the moon is dark; they swell and then fade.  While we can learn details and names from a calendar or a website, the plain facts of Jewish time are in the sky above us, if we are only willing to go outside and look. 

What’s a Mezuzah?

Polski: Mezuza

 

— A mezuzah (meh – ZOOZ – zah) is a box or case which we attach to the doorframe of a Jewish home.

 

— The little box or case contains a piece of parchment called a klaf. (See photo below.)

 

— The parchment has Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and 11:13-21 written on it by a specially trained scribe, in Hebrew:

 

Hear, O Israel: The Eternal our God, the Eternal is one.  Love the Eternal your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.  Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.  Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.

So if you faithfully obey the commands I am giving you today—to love the Lord your God and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul— then I will send rain on your land in its season, both autumn and spring rains, so that you may gather in your grain, new wine and olive oil. I will provide grass in the fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be satisfied.

Be careful, or you will be enticed to turn away and worship other gods and bow down to them.  Then theLord’s anger will burn against you, and he will shut up the heavens so that it will not rain and the ground will yield no produce, and you will soon perish from the good land the Lord is giving you.  Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.  Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 20 Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates,  so that your days and the days of your children may be many in the land the Lord swore to give your ancestors, as many as the days that the heavens are above the earth.

 

— By putting the mezuzah up, the Jews who live in this home fulfill the commandment to “write [these words] on the doorposts.”

 

— The box and the parchment serve as a reminder that a Jewish home is a holy place.

 

— Some Jewish homes have mezuzot (plural) on all the doorways except the bathroom doors. Others put a mezuzah only on the main entrance.

 

English: The Shema parchment of a Mezuzah.
A typical Klaf

 

For more about the mitzvah [commandment] of the mezuzah, read more in this article in the Jewish Virtual Library.

 

What’s Tu B’Av?

 

Tu B’Av is a minor but fun Jewish holiday. After the mourning of Tisha B’Av, this is a lovely little day to be happy and to celebrate love.

  • Tu B’Av = Fifteenth of the Month of Av. In Hebrew, the letters that form the number 15 can also be pronounced “Tu.”
  • Today in Israel, it’s called Chag HaAhavah, the Holiday of Love, and it’s a favored day for weddings. Think of it as Jewish Valentine’s Day.
  • In Temple times, in Jerusalem, the grape harvest began on the fifteenth of Av and ended on the tenth of Tishrei, Yom Kippur. On both those days, single girls dressed in white and went to dance in the vineyards in the afternoon. It was a traditional time for courtship.
  • There are no big religious observances for the day. However, it’s a good day to get married, a good day to fall in love, and a great day to tell your loved ones “I love you.”