Serious Reflections at...

…the happiest place on Earth.

I just spent my first two hours in Disneyland reading my friend Torran Anderson’s book Piñata Moon about a high school kid hanging out with his two friends searching for unreachable meaning one night in his hometown of Tucson, Arizona a week after his dear friend whom he loved killed herself.

The unique style of writing heightens the dialogical reading experience. It alternates between poems, text messages sent by the moon, and an ongoing list of reasons to live.

Throughout the book, he contrasts the empty strip-mall-like experience of high school party-seeking with the tribal rituals boys go through to become men — both drawing upon the particular imagery of desert life in Tucson. 

My reading of the book in a single sitting at Disneyland provided me with existential companionship to counter the artificial fantasy world that is commercially produced and frenetically pursued.

Reading a book by a friend who describes a common physical and emotional landscape of our youth is gripping. At the same time, the universal nature of grief, loss, and painful seeking resonates with a different time, person, and place found in Catcher in the Rye.

I would like to share this book with the teens I work with, but the raw and real nature of the experience and topic would require parental permission — all the more reason why it should be shared with teens.

To read more about the book to a write-up about it that came out today by clicking here.

-Rabbi Barkan

Remembering My Father-In-Law Jerry Weber

It’s strange developing a sustained transformative relationship with someone you have never met. Perhaps this happens by reading a series of books by a great novelist or studying the lasting theories of a scientist. In the Jewish tradition, the words of our sages are recorded in the present tense.

“Rabbi Akiva says...Rav Huna says in the name of...Rav Yehudah disagrees...”

When studying the words of our rabbis it is as if we are part of their conversation and project to build a sacred community. We get to know them through this recorded part of their lives. Since I began dating Adina over 25 years ago, I have been getting to know my father-in-law, Jerry Weber, even though he died a few years earlier. Through the stories about him I have heard and read I have developed my own relationship with him that has shaped who I am.

Adina tells the story about how Jerry never sat still during services. In the main sanctuary, he sat in the back row with his friend Kurt Hirschler where they would kibbitz. In the Library minyan, he would walk around and shmooze. One day, in the middle of services, he gets Eric Iskin’s attention with whom he would often discuss politics, and motions with his finger to follow him. Eric climbs over a row of people, follows Jerry into the hall, expecting a very serious conversation. Jerry says, I just found this great restaurant. Would you and Susan like to join Sally and me for dinner after Shabbat?

This love to make connections between people through the synagogue led Jerry and Sally to help create the Library Minyan at Valley Beth Shalom, a minyan that functioned more like a vibrant Havurah of friends whose lives, families, and homes are still intertwined.

These relationships were nurtured by connecting outside of the synagogue as well, often around the Shabbat table. We have modeled ourselves after Jerry and Sally, opening our home to host people for Shabbat meals throughout our marriage, building a community around Shabbat and through the synagogue.

As a Jewish professional in the Federation, Jerry created the Council for Jewish Life. He created programs to welcome and integrate new immigrants into the LA Jewish community. Jerry used his position and power to include the disenfranchised, especially those with different abilities.

Adina remembers a poster he had in his office of a man in a wheelchair at the bottom of the steps of the entrance of the synagogue. I am inspired by how she draws upon his passion to be a strong advocate for those with different abilities to find their place within the Jewish community.

Jerry also focused internally on the heart of our Jewish community by working with congregations of different movements. Rabbi Danny Landes, the former rabbi of an Orthodox shul, Bnai David, shared with us that when he and Jerry were behind closed doors they argued about everything. However, once they walked into a meeting together they stood shoulder to shoulder working on behalf of the Jewish community. Since I have recently become an employee of the Jewish Federation,

I feel an additional sense of kinship with Jerry as I navigate the challenges of bringing together different Jewish institutions. I emulate his dedication to the larger Jewish community while placing mission over ambition.

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Jerry prioritized his family. This can be especially difficult to do for mission-driven Jewish leaders. Adina cherishes the many childhood memories with her father:

While watching the Marx Brothers, he would wildly laugh kicking his feet and hitting the wall behind him.

When they were watching Adina’s Bat Mitzvah tape, Sally was in the kitchen multitasking. At a certain point, Jerry shushed everyone, saying, “It’s the silent Amidah.”

Going to Dodgers games with her father. His photographic mind combined with his love of baseball led to his ritual of showing up to the park early so he could record all of the stats of the game. This wouldn’t prevent him, though, from leaving early to beat the traffic, which always frustrated Adina.

His broad base of knowledge and sharp intelligence allowed him to dominate conversations and Trivial Pursuit games, even against Sally and Muff Singer.

After he died, the family decided they would begin watching movies on Shabbat at home. The first time they put in a video into the VHS it didn’t work.

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He went to UCLA where he convinced a few buddies to try out the Young Democrats club with him. Those friends were Former US Representatives Harold Berman and Henry Waxman.

He considered attending USC for graduate school, but his overriding sense of loyalty to UCLA made it impossible for him to even bear being on campus for an interview.

Like the classic father-in-law/son-in-law relationship, part of me is intimidated by him. Do I live up to the ideals and values he emulates? Am I Iiving up to my own ideals and values. While I strive to succeed and be the best person I can be, I also learn from him to accept who I am. He was just a man with his own strengths and limitations, like each of us.

Thank you Jerry Weber for being on this journey with me. It has strengthened me as a husband to your daughter, a father to your grandchildren, a Jewish professional in a challenging Jewish community, and a rabbi with an abiding sense of purpose and mission.

Foster Parenting: Part Two

It was a big decision for us to begin fostering again. The journey is different now that we have a daughter. There were many considerations that we made before we decided to jump back into the Foster Care system:

  • Do we have the time and energy to care for babies in terms of our sleep-schedule, demands of daily-life, our relationship, and longer-term plans?

  • How will Aracely respond to children coming into our home and leaving our home?

We tested out the latter issue by bringing a child into our home in June to provide respite for his foster-family for a ten-day period. Our two-year old daughter struggled with sharing our time and attention but ultimately viewed this as an opportunity for her to care for the baby. She declared, “This is my baby. I am a big sister.” When he left, we explained that we were helping another family take care of him. She adjusted back to life as it was easily.

After this positive experience of providing respite care, we decided to test out the waters to begin fostering again. We called our social worker to see if there were any babies who needed a home. The need was immediate. We brought a child into our home that week. 

Since we have begun fostering again, our daughter has been even more interested in holding the baby, helping changing him, feeding, and comforting him when he cries. We make sure to give her lots of individual time. And it is still, “Her baby.”

The first few weeks of fostering proved to be incredibly challenging. Adina got the flu the first week. It was up to me to take care of our daughter, the baby, and Adina. I did it for the first few days, then it became too much. We decided to make use of the emergency respite option. That night, another foster family, took our foster son for two nights. We were going to have him in longer, but Adina recovered, and we were excited to have him back with us. Again, we explained to our daughter that just like we helped a family take care of a baby, another family was helping us take care of our baby for a few days.

The next week, the baby got a fever in the middle of the night. Adina took him to the hospital. He was diagnosed with a virus and sent back home in the morning. The next day, though, he was called back into the hospital because a test came back positive for a Urinary Tract Infection. Adina stayed overnight in the hospital. It turned out that it was a false positive and they were discharged.

After this whirlwind of challenging events, it has been nice settling into a routine. We share the nightly feedings and give each other opportunities to take naps when possible. I am grateful that the synagogue lets me work with him in my office when such challenges occur. Adina and I are suited for this loving service. Adina advocates for the baby’s medical needs. She sets up appointments with agencies, reports on his progress, demands services for his needs, and coordinates his care with all parties.

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We are strong proponents of reunification and co-parenting through the process of reunification. We also are confident in our ability to be a safety-net by providing the option of permanency if that is what is needed. In the meantime, this child needs a loving home and we have one to offer. We enjoy the blessings this baby brings into our lives in the moment. We let go of future possibilities and focus on the beautiful demands of now.

This has also allowed me to recalibrate my priorities in life. With so many unknowns of what may happen this year, we are placing our focus on our family. Our family has the strength and the love to be open to this little person who needs a home right now. I am grateful for that.

Tammuz

Living according to the Jewish calendar aligns one with the meaningful rhythms of loss and renewal. On the 17th of Tammuz we begin a three week period mourning with a minor fast day (from sunrise to nightfall) that culminates with Tisha B’Av, the 9th of Av, the day we mark the destructions of the Temple in Jerusalem in 586 BCE and 70 CE, along with many other tragedies that have befallen our people throughout history. Since the 17th of Tammuz falls on Saturday this year, we observe the fast on Sunday. On Tisha B’Av the fast begins in the evening and lasts until the next night.

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There are many mourning rituals during this three week period whose severity increases as we approach Tisha B’Av. We refrain from listening to live music, from getting haircuts, and shaving. During the first nine days of Av, we also refrain from eating meat or drinking wine, yet Shabbat meals override this restriction.

Each Shabbat morning during the three weeks, we read a special haftarah whose intent is to jar us out of complacency to take actions that will reverse or at least mitigate our harsh experience of history and reshape the world according to our highest values.

On Tisha B’Av itself, we begin the night chanting the book of Eicha, Lamentations, while sitting on the floor of the synagogue in the dark by the light of a candle. We either chant the prayers in a dirge-like melody or we simply say them. We don’t put on Tallit or Tefillin in the morning. We don’t study Torah or do other pleasurable activities.

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At the afternoon service, the tone shifts towards healing and rebuilding. We put on Tallit and Tefillin and read sections from the Torah and prophets about comfort and forgiveness.

This begins the seven-week period, shiva, of healing, culminating with the renewal of Rosh Hashanah.

On each Shabbat, we read a haftarah of comfort. The first Shabbat is called Shabbat Nachamu and the haftarah beautifully opens with Nachamu Nachamu Ami, Be comforted, be comforted, my people.

From the outside, all of these rituals may look antiquated and extreme. For the one who lives in-sync with the Jewish calendar, these rituals guide one on a journey of transformation and renewal. The rabbis teach, “All who mourn for Jerusalem will merit seeing her joy, as it is said, ‘Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad for her, all who love her; all who mourned her will rejoice with her (Isaiah 66:10).’”

Tosefta Sotah 15:10-15

Another word about fasting. Here is one of my favorite teachings-

As Rav Ḥana bar Bizna said that Rabbi Shimon Ḥasida said:

What is the meaning of that which is written: “Thus said the Lord of hosts: The fast of the fourth month, and the fast of the fifth, and fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth, shall become times of joy and gladness,and cheerful seasons, to the house of Judah”(Zechariah 8:19).

It calls them days of “fast” and it calls them “times of joy and gladness.” How so? When there is peace in the world, they will be times of joy and gladness, on which eulogies and fasting are forbidden; but when there is no peace, they are days of fasting.

Rav Pappa said that this is what it is saying: When there is peace in the world and the Temple is standing, these days will be times of joy and gladness; when there is persecution and troubles for the Jewish people, they are days of fasting; and when there is no persecution but still no peace, the halakha is as follows: If people wish, they fast, and if they wish, they do not fast.

Rosh Hashana 18b

-Rabbi Barkan

Camp Ramah: The Happiest Place On Earth

My family calls Camp Ramah the happiest place on earth. It is amazing how Ramah creates an intentional Jewish community that supports each child to thrive. This is an enormous responsibility that is planned thoroughly and professionally. The leadership demonstrated at all levels of Ramah is impressive and consistent.

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Most of the youth from our congregation featured in this picture are in the older groups. Two of them are counselors. Yet there are two others here who are in the youngest group signaling that a new generation of Ramahniks is rising in Tucson. It is a joy to support this generational transition in our community. 

I grew up as a camper at Ramah and I returned as a counselor and teacher for five years. The greatest joy of my experience this week was witnessing how my two-year-old daughter thrived in this kibbutz-like context. When she would wake up she would be excited to see “the people.” She loved how each day we ate meals prayed and played together. It was extra special that two of my cousins from Las Vegas also came to camp. Another generation of Ramahniks is rising up in my own family. 

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I had the privilege to teach groups of all ages and sizes throughout my week there as the visiting rabbi. I explored ancient texts with teens going into 10th Grade about strategies for Jewish engagement from which we gleaned insights about how we can use Social Media as a tool to engage Jewish youth today. I told stories to kids going into 5th and 6th Grades about how I started to keep Shabbat. My favorites class was with teens going into 8th Grade. We addressed in a direct way the fundamental question of why be Jewish. They shared openly about their different expressions of, and challenges with, Judaism. Through the process of affirming where each one was at in his or her development, I was able to share how Judaism provided me the framework and guidance to find my place and purpose in the world. 

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My wife who also grew up at Ramah and served on staff, volunteered, as she does each time we are there, with campers who have different abilities. There are children of all ages who form a supportive group that accommodates their various abilities while being an integral part of the camp. This includes a group of young adults who are empowered to work in different roles around Camp.  This is another shining example of how the camp empowers everyone to thrive in his or her way.  The Jewish values deeply embedded in the structure of the community and daily life of Camp combined with a vibrant and supportive communal context within which kids (and adults) can be themselves truly makes Camp Ramah the happiest place on earth. 

Thank you Camp Ramah for a wonderful week and a lifetime of amazing memories.

National Foster Care Month

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Since we began our Foster Care journey in 2016, May has consistently been an intense month for us. After being licensed in April, both of our long-term placements came to us in May, one year after another. One of those foster placements resulted in adoption.

After this weekend, we will begin taking foster placements into our home again. When we return from Los Angeles, we will provide respite to another foster family for 10 days by taking care of a five-month-old boy whom they are fostering. During this placement, we will asses how fostering other children is for our two-year-old daughter.

Adina is excited to provide care for another baby. She thrives on being part of a team of case-workers, behavioral therapists, social workers, medical professionals, and lawyers who together create a safety-net for children in the foster care system. She has acquired the skill-set to advocate to meet the needs of the child during this critical time of development in the first months of life.

I am passionate about fostering because it provides the care and love for the child in the moment, while his or her family is receiving the support from the state to repair whatever it is that prevented them from providing adequate care. The primary goal of Foster Care is reunifying the child with his or her family. If the parents are not able, then the extended family is asked to stand up; if they are not available then the community of friends is approached; if they aren’t available, then the foster parents are asked to adopt the child.

In our case, we are privileged to have developed an ongoing personal relationship with our child’s extended biological family. This added element of love has not only enriched our child’s life, it has enriched ours, too.

While circumstances can often make this fostering process a challenging one, the values and priorities are correctly aligned. Within this system, I cherish the opportunity to provide this child with love and care, while being a positive force in the child's larger family and community.

One last note: There is a critical shortage of foster parents throughout our country and within our communities. What do you think is blocking families from stepping up into the breach to support our children? People often say that they could never be foster parents because they wouldn’t be able to say goodbye. If we are looking at this issue from what is best for the child, rather than what is best for ourselves, perhaps our perspective would change and more parents would be willing to foster.


My Favorite Kippah

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When I began Tucson Hebrew Academy, I was required to wear a kippah during school. Walking through the Swap Meet, my Nana’s favorite flea market in Tucson, I came across a table filled with these rainbow-colored knitted kippot. I tried one on. It covered my entire head. I was proud to wear a kippah of my own, especially such a unique one.

In college, as I became observant of my own choice, I began to wear a kippah in my daily life. I returned to my favorite rainbow-colored knitted kippah. One day, a Guatemalan man approached me, inquiring why I was wearing this head covering that comes from a specific region in Guatemala. This specific knowledge about my kippah added another layer of meaning for me. By observing this Jewish tradition, I was also connecting with Guatemalan culture.

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As a young rabbi in Chicago, I discovered a Fair Trade organization called Maya Works. They purchase art from women in Guatemala at a fair-market price based on its sale in the United States. Such ethical business practices have transformed the lives of individuals and communities. Kippot and Tallitot are this organization’s best-selling products. This cross-cultural/social justice component enhances the kippah’s meaning.

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In Talmud Shabbat 118b Rav Huna, the son of Rav Yehoshua states he wouldn’t walk four feet without having his head covered since God’s presence is above him. My unique journey of wearing a kippah connects me with God, values of justice, and peoples’ distinct cultures all over the world.

A Prayer From Tucson City Hall


As a Rabbi and Jewish educator, I offer these prayers for our children and their education. I gave my social media community the opportunity to share their prayers on this crucial subject and will incorporate their prayers as part of this invocation. 

“The world only exists on account of the breath of children at the school-house.”

This statement was made by Resh Lakish in the name of Rabbi Yehuda the Magistrate around 2000 years ago recorded in the Talmud on page 119b of Shabbat. 

The issue of education perennially remains the central way to shape our society, to make the ultimate investment in our future. The breath of our children engaged in learning ensures that our civilization will persist. That order will prevail over chaos. That future generations will preserve, build, and create. 

On that same page in Talmud Rabbi Hamnuna suggests that the inverse is true too: that Jerusalem was destroyed because children stopped attending the school-house.

We know this violent reality in our society all too intimately. I share with you a prayer by Dan Alexander, the Chief Administrative Officer at Great Lakes Academy Charter School in Chicago. 

He offers this prayer in the wake of a drive-by shooting late at night last week outside the school where a young man and woman were badly injured: “I pray for God to help us construct schools, economy, law, and religion to cause our young people to have the inner strength to reject gangs and the violence they bring.”

 

How do we teach our children this basic tenet of choosing life?

One of my main mentors, my mother-in-law, addresses this fundamental question with the prayer she shares:

“A Prayer on Learning for a Child I Love”

By Sally Weber

What do I want you to learn?

To speak, to read, to write of course.

And to excel.

But to excel in learning from all around you.

The people who love you, the people who don’t;

The people you agree with, the people you don’t;

Those who speak loudly, those who speak softly.

I want you to learn that you have a moral base.

I want you to excel in discerning how to share that with the world.

I want you to learn to say ‘yes’ and also how to say ‘no’

And to understand why you’re making those choices.

I want you to learn from the love that’s offered that you have love to give.

I want you to learn that you will always be loved.

 
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Her prayer challenges us to ensure that the basic skills we prioritize in our schools don’t replace basic human values that we must teach our children so that they understand that they matter in an absolute way.


The family is the primary place where we teach our children these lessons of being loved. Yet transformative teaching in the classroom at every age emanates from relationships between teacher and student, and student and student. 

 

One of my former students who lives in Jerusalem, Dafna Guttman shares her prayer that recognizes how this profound encounter must be the basis of how we educate our children. 

May we be guided and successful in (educating) providing a space for our children to express their needs and desires to us freely and without shame. For them to know that they are seen, cared for, and supported. After which, they will go on to do wonderful things in this world.

I add my own humble prayer to these prayers: 

May we educate our children to appreciate the beauty of nature and mystery of existence; to simply learn how to be kind; to have hope.

Tucson City Hall

Tucson City Hall

I am grateful for how these public forums -- City Council and Social Media – can be used as a powerful and positive force for change in our society. May God establish the work of the hands of educators, public-policy makers, Religious leaders, parents and the hands of our children as we shape our world.

Here is the official video of me reciting your prayers. It’s the first two minutes, enjoy!

A Seder Supplement to Maximize the Family Value of Your Seder

The essence of the Seder experience is to create a family educational experience. At each part of the Seder, from start to finish, the goal is to transmit our foundational Jewish story to the next generation. Below is a supplement that follows the order of the Seder highlighting the educational aspects of each element. It includes questions at the end of each section to apply the concept to your family around the table.

1. Afikoman:

We break the middle matza and lift up the smaller half saying, “This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate…”

Like an animated film, this opening part of the Seder is simultaneously sending one message to the adults and one to the children. While the adults are getting prepared to delve into the story of oppression, this act signals to the children that the game of seeking the afikomen is about to begin. The larger half of the broken matza represents redemption, our hopes and dreams for a better world. Unlike the smaller half, the bread of affliction that is being showcased, the larger half is wrapped up and hidden away to capture the imagination of the child who is poised to seek it out. What an appropriate way to set the stage for the Seder: while the adults are discussing the problems of the Jewish people and the world, the children are eagerly engaged in seeking out the solution. Two different mindsets are formed that will influence the way each one experiences the Seder. Hopefully by the end, the two generations will come together along with the pieces of the broken matza.

How do we empower our children in the face of the challenging realities of life? What tools does Judaism and the Seder offer us in doing so?

2. The Four Questions:

According to the Mishna, “And here the child asks [questions to] the parent. And if the child has no understanding [in order to ask questions], the parent teaches the child [to ask the four questions]… And according to the child's understanding, the parent instructs him or her.” (Mishnah Pesahim 10:4)

Questioning leads to discovery and research. This is the heart of Judaism. The first command in the Shema after loving God is to teach your child. We do this by teaching our children to ask questions. In the above source, the rabbis wisely teach that the parent instructs the child according to the child’s understanding. What interests our child? What is our child ready to explore? What are the best ways for our child to learn? Perhaps this is why the tradition arose to have the youngest child ask the questions. We need to engage all of our children, all ages, abilities, and learning styles.

The rabbis suggest beginning by pointing out to the child how this night is different from all other nights. These basic questions can lead to deeper questions:

Why do we only eat matzah tonight? According to the Torah, one reason why we eat Matza is to remember the hurried manner in which the Israelites left Egypt. They didn’t even have enough time for the bread to rise. Typical of Judaism, we bring the stories of Torah to life through our actions, mitzvot. We translate moral messages into actions. It is our responsibility to explore the meaning of the actions that the Torah mandates so we can infuse them with the values they were meant to carry. What values does another mitzvah, mandated Torah behavior, communicate?

Why do we specifically eat bitter herbs tonight? This is recognizing the oppression that exists in our lives. How would you explain this to your children? Why is it important that we taste the bitterness?

Why do we dip foods twice tonight? This is a custom from Roman feasts, which the Seder meal is loosely based on. Engaging in such a feast, including dipping foods into delicacies, is the custom of free people. What meaning does mimicking the actions of free people give the Seder?

Why do we recline? Again, this was part of the Roman custom, but we added another meaning: We are acting out the story of going out of slavery. In what ways are we free today as Jews?

And the question that binds all of these questions together: why do you engage in these rituals?

What other questions are important for you to instruct your child to ask regarding Pesah and Judaism.

3. Four Children

“And you shall tell your child on that day…” (Exodus 13:8, 14)

The Hebrew for the word “tell” is the same word for Hagada. The central mitzva of Pesah of telling the story comes directly from the Torah. The Torah is so concerned about transmitting the memory and lessons of this experience of the Exodus that this command to tell the story comes while the people are in the process of leaving.

The answer to each child is in the first person. In fact, later in the hagadah it explicitly states, “Each person is obligated to see him or herself as if he or she went out of Egypt.” We need to make this our story. How do you relate to this story? What has been your process of learning this story? Did you grow up with a family Seder? Or, did you come to Judaism as an adult? How does your story intersect with the Pesah story? Tell the story in first person, “When I or we came out of Egypt…”

What about your experience of Pesah do you want to tell the next generation so it continues? Why does your experience of Pesah and Judaism matter to the next generation?

4. The symbols on the Seder Plate:

These symbols come from the Torah’s account of the first Passover meal that took place on the eve of redemption in Egypt (Exodus 12:3-4):

“Speak to the whole community of Israel and say that on the tenth of this month each of them shall take a lamb to a family, a lamb to a household. But if the household is too small for a lamb, let him share one with a neighbor who dwells nearby, in proportion to the number of persons: you shall contribute for the lamb according to what each household will eat…They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they are to eat it. They shall eat the flesh that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire, with unleavened bread and with bitter herbs. 9Do not eat any of it raw, or cooked in any way with water, but roasted…”

Our family Seder is simulating the experience that each family had in Egypt according to the Torah. The Torah instructs each family to experience this event as a family. By eating the Pesah sacrifice together the family was protecting its household from the tenth plague by putting blood of the sacrifice on the doorpost. The accompanying foods have also become symbolic of leaving slavery – bitter herbs and matza.

What family customs of yours communicate the value of togetherness? What actions does your family do that connects you to the Jewish people? How can you connect these family traditions to the explanation of the traditional Pesah symbols?

5. The Ten Plagues:

The slaying of the first-born rips apart every Egyptian household to save every Israelite one. The Pharoah’s dynasty was diminished by killing the first-born son as the Children of Israel emerge as God’s people. Destroying one family while establishing another. How do we approach destruction that was brought about for the sake of our redemption?

There is a midrash, a rabbinic teaching, when the Israelites crossed the sea and they witnessed the Egyptians drowning in it, they broke into song praising God. The angels join in this song with the Israelites. At this point, God rebukes the angels, “Will you praise me while my children are dying?” In this midrash, God doesn’t rebuke us for rejoicing in our freedom.

However, when we recount the plagues we take out some of our wine from our cups to symbolically diminish our joy. We must always maintain our humanity while we ensure our survival. These teachings do not allow us to exult in the value of revenge or moral superiority; rather they guide us to focus on our humanity and compassion. This call for civility is especially challenging to maintain in our culture of uncivil discourse and the polarization in our politics when it comes to the state of Israel. How do we as Jews respond in a Jewish way?

How do we teach our children to stand up for ourselves in the face of aggression while maintaining our values and not becoming aggressive ourselves?

6. Meal:

This is a time for relaxing and reflecting upon what you have gone through to reach this moment, bonding as a family. This is a good time to assess if you are enjoying being with your family while trying to transmit the story.

7. Eliyahu:

Malachi 3:22-24

“Be mindful of the Teaching of My servant Moses, whom I charged at Horeb with laws and rules for all Israel. Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the Lord. He shall reconcile parents with children and children with their parents, so that, when I come, I do not strike the whole land with utter destruction.”

In the quote above, Elijah the prophet uses one criterion to determine if we are forces of redemption or destruction, and that is our relationship with our children. What happens when we are not connecting as a family? What happens when the Jewish rituals are obstacles to bonding rather than tools? This is an opportunity to step back and ask if our lifestyle and values are aligned to strengthen our core, our family. If not, what needs to change? We need to apply this same question to Judaism. How can Jewish traditions specifically strengthen our family? Remember, this is the very purpose of the Seder and of Judaism. We can’t effectively transmit the story to the next generation if we don’t have this basic piece of relating in place.

I know it’s getting late, but ask if everyone is able and willing to come back to the table to finish the Seder. If so, Rabbi Harold Shulweis introduces the beautiful ritual at this point to pass Elijah’s cup around the table and have everyone pour a bit of wine or grape juice into it, representing that we all have what to contribute to our hopes for our family, for our people, for our future. Debbie Friedman’s beautiful Eliyahu Hanavi melody that is commonly sung after Havdallah lends itself to bonding too.

8. Songs

Playfulness and song are Jewish values in themselves. The songs we are singing are fun and an opportunity to be silly. However, the themes of the songs are all serious ones. How effectively can we have fun with the children around the table while retaining the high level of consciousness of what we accomplished through the Seder. These songs lend themselves to functioning on both of these levels.

Do you carve out time to play as a family? How does this value lead to building other values that strengthen your family?

Love is Stronger than Death

We complete the book of Genesis this Shabbat. After we read the last line, the congregation declares together Hazak Hazak V’Nithazek, “Strength, strength, let us be strengthened.” These last few lines, themselves, end on a note of strength as the family members of Jacob are emerging as the People of Israel. Here they are personally addressed as “The Children of Israel” for the first time (Genesis 50:25).

God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah in the covenant is being realized. Yet, there is a minor problem: the Children of Israel are still in Egypt, and we know that the book of Exodus is going to take our people into slavery. Even though we know the present and future challenges, this last chapter plants the seed of redemption. The Torah connects us, through the burial of Jacob, to the Promised Land, when he is buried at the Cave of Machpelah, the family plot, if you will, where Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, and Leah are buried.

In the last lines, this connection to the Land is made even more explicit:

“Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am about to die. God will surely take notice of you and bring you up from this land that He promised on oath to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob.’ So Joseph made the Children of Israel swear, saying, ‘When God has taken notice of you, you shall carry up my bones from here.’” (Genesis 50:24-25).

Where and how we are buried is a powerful statement about who we are, the connection to our posterity and our values. With this decision, Joseph fully identifies with his family instead of the Egyptian society that hosted him and gave him power. Joseph connects himself to and assures God’s future redemption of the People. Indeed, this oath was fulfilled by Moses when he the people went up from Egypt in Exodus 13:19.

In our hyper-mobile society, many long-standing Jewish cemeteries are struggling. Family plots are a thing of the past since families are dispersed all over the country. As a result, many people are choosing to be cremated. These decisions regarding death reflect the breakdown of our values and the future of our Jewish community.

Each year, Rabbi Eisen takes the 5th-6th Grade students to the cemetery to learn about Geniza, the tradition of burying documents, books, or even a Torah in order to obey the mitzvah not to destroy God’s Hebrew name. On this field trip, he also gives a tour of the cemetery. He demonstrates the historical strength of the Tucson Jewish community by pointing out the burial plots of the families of our lay and professional leaders, i.e., Rabbi Marcus and Bertha Breger and Cantor Maurice and Bessie Falkow’s plots.

Honoring our connection to past generations, to our relatives and friends who have died, reinforces our values and identity for future generations. When an ancestor dies, the Torah says, “he has been gathered to his people” (Genesis 25:8). The greatest decision is to make our eternal resting place part of theirs. By doing so, we deliberately and securely link ourselves in the mysterious chain of life and death. When we make such a decision to be buried among our ancestors, we become like Joseph, directing our children and future generations towards redemption even in the face of serious challenges.  

This Winter Break, I encourage you to carve out time to visit the cemetery. Take your children with you. Demonstrate to them that even death does not end our connection to the ones we love. Our love and values are stronger than death.

Parashat Vayigash 5779: The Blessing of a Negative Attitude

My wife’s grandmother, Grandma Florence, of blessed memory, had a hard life in many ways, but she maintained a positive attitude. Whenever she would see me, she would say, “You are beautiful!” Then she would often share her life philosophy: “Remember, love makes the world go around.”

Her life-affirming philosophy stands in contrast with Yaakov towards the end of his life. After he is reunited with Yosef and settled in Egypt, he is presented before Pharaoh:

“Yaakov blessed Pharaoh. Pharaoh asked Yaakov, ‘How many are the years of your life?’ And Yaakov answered Pharaoh, ‘The year of my sojourn are one hundred and thirty. Few and hard have been the years of my life, nor do they come up to the life spans of my fathers during their sojourns.’ Yaakov blessed Pharaoh and left Pharaoh’s presence.” (Genesis 47:7-10)

Another translation for “hard” is “bad,” which makes his evaluation of the years of his life even more disturbing. Yes, Yaakov experienced many challenges throughout his life, but such a negative evaluation of life is not befitting of one of our patriarchs. Furthermore, he represents our unique covenanted relationship with God as he comes before Pharaoh. What does this negative perspective say about Yaakov’s view of himself and his relationship with God, let alone in the public eye?

It is instructive to contrast Yaakov’s negative attitude with Cain’s after God doesn’t accept his offering. God warns Cain:

“Why are you distressed,

And why is your face fallen?

Surely, if you do right,

There is uplift.

But if you do not do right

Sin couches at the door;

Its urge is toward you,

Yet you can be its master.” (Genesis 4:6-8)

This Divine warning to Cain privileges action. A negative attitude can lead to sinful action. However, the determining factor is not one’s attitude, it is mitigated or even remedied by the actions one takes. Immediately after this warning, Cain rises up to murder Abel. He let his attitude determine his actions. In contrast, we don’t see Yaakov take any negative actions. The manipulative behaviors from his youth are absent. Instead, from his deathbed, he gives blessings, warnings, and instructions to his children and grandchildren.

Perhaps Yaakov is giving a dose of reality to Pharaoh who is implicitly seeking wisdom when he asks this venerated head of the clan his age. Yaakov’s stark words to Pharaoh are an Ecclesiastes type of rebuke: “Don’t think that you can escape death just because you can purchase power and pleasure in life. I have faced directly and withstood the great challenges of life; have you? As a result, I leave the legacy of my family, and the values of my God as I face the reality of death; what are you leaving behind?” This same negativity expressed to Pharaoh can be detected when Yaakov delivers blessings and rebuke to his children from his deathbed. Yet this is an example of how he uses his clear-eyed perspective, even if it’s negative, to ensure the legacy of his family.

With dwindling numbers of affiliated families in in Jewish life and synagogues specifically, there is justification to have a negative outlook. While it is instructive to look at reality with open eyes, the question is what action your attitude spurs you to take. It is the actions of that small group of families whose involvement secures the success of a program and even creates a community. It is those few leaders, like the two spies in the desert, who stand up against the majority culture because they know that their blessed path will succeed despite the challenges.

Let us be like Yaakov, willing to state the negative reality even in the face of the powerful. Then take constructive action to secure the future of our family and our people.

The Need for Darkness

The bulb needs the cold for its flower to blossom in the spring. It draws strength from its inner resources during the cold. Bulbs are thus planted right before the winter and gain nourishment from their dark subterranean climate. Bulbs grown in Tucson are planted when the temperature falls below 80 degrees. Some varieties of bulbs like Tulips and Hyacinths should be placed in a paper bag and placed in the vegetable crisper of the refrigerator for a few weeks before planting.

Bulbs are a symbol of how life needs the dark cold to grow. Like bulbs, human beings need to regenerate each night in the quiet darkness. We, too, are shaped by the seasons of the natural environment.

Morally and spiritually, we need the darkness as well as demonstrated by one of my favorite rabbinic texts from Talmud Shabbat 88b:

Our Rabbis taught:

The ones who are insulted but don’t insult back,

Listen to their shame but don’t respond,

Do (mitzvot) out of love,

(Retain) joy in suffering,

The text says about them:

“The ones who love God are like the sun rising in its might.”

The sun rising in its might refers to the time right before dawn. Surrounded by darkness, the sun quietly, confidently, naturally rises dispelling all darkness. The ones who love God even while surrounded by darkness are being compared to this moment of sunrise. The ones who can be surrounded by darkness but maintain their core do so because they nurture themselves from a deeper inner source. The darkness directs one to turn inwards. Like the sun, the light that emanates with strength from the core ultimately bursts outwards.

At the end of last week’s parashah, Vayeshev, Joseph is forgotten in the dungeon, a similar place to where he started his journey, in the pit. Between these two places of darkness he grows with the spirit of God making his way successful. He begins to learn who he is in darkness. He defines himself inwardly, regardless of the external circumstances. In this week’s parasha, Miketz, he rises to power in the light of day, in front of everyone. He does so with a deliberate strength that has been forged through darkness.

During Hanukkah, the darkness of this time of year directs us to tap into our inner resources. The darkness teaches us to find strength in our spiritual core. May the candles we light in the darkness be a symbol of this inner light. Like the sun that is rising, our light shines forth from the Source of light.

Dedicated in memory of Hans Spear.

Bridging the Inner Divide

Parker Palmer -- author, educator, and activist who focuses on issues in education, community, leadership, spirituality and social change -- addresses a common spiritual problem in his book A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life. He describes how people’s inner lives – who we are at the core of our identity: our values, passions, our relationships -- are divided from what we are doing in the world. In his words:

The divided life comes in many and varied forms. To cite just a few examples, it is the life we lead when

  • We refuse to invest ourselves in our work, diminishing its quality and distancing ourselves from those it is meant to serve

  • We make our living at jobs that violate our basic values, even when survival does not absolutely demand it

  • We remain in settings or relationships that steadily kill off our spirits

  • We harbor secrets to achieve personal gain at the expense of other people

  • We hide our beliefs from those who disagree with us to avoid conflict, challenge, and change

  • We conceal our true identities for fear of being criticized, shunned, or attacked

    (A Hidden Wholeness, p. 6)

“As adults we may ask, ‘Whatever happened to me? How did I lose that capacity to be here as I really am?’ We have to find a way to build a bridge between our identity and integrity as adults and the work that we do in the world.” http://www.couragerenewal.org/stories/what-is-a-divided-life/

Joseph suffers from this painful divide during his late adolescence at the beginning of the narrative in this week’s Torah portion, Vayeshev. He desperately wants to find his place within his family, amidst his competitive brothers; yet, his brothers reject and despise him. This division leads him to dream twice of his entire family bowing down to him. Perhaps the pain of the actual divide between who he aspires to be and the reality that prevents him from being himself, blinds and leads him to the foolish act of telling his brothers about his dreams which make them hate him even more intensely.

The conflict comes to a head as his father sends Joseph to locate his brothers when they are out shepherding in the fields. As he is searching, he encounters a man wandering in the field. The man asks Joseph, “What are you seeking?” He responds, “I am seeking my brothers...” (Genesis 37:15-16).

This incidental encounter and question more subtly highlight Joseph’s internal void. “What is it that you are seeking?” should be read as an existential question here. His response, “My brothers” indicates, from this perspective that the only thing he is seeking in life is his brothers. What does this say about his sense of self? He is reduced to defining himself based on their acceptance of him. He has lost his own integrity. Not surprisingly, this seemingly simple question foreshadows the impending disaster with his brothers that awaits him around the corner.

At times, life asks us, “What are you seeking?” as we are aimlessly seek answers that can only be found within ourselves, hence the divide.

It is not until after Joseph is alone in the darkness of the pit that he embarks on a journey that teaches him to find the answer within, in the language of the Torah, “The spirit of God was with him.” Once he turns this corner, even though he faces other hardships he does so with integrity and wholeness. This journey ultimately prepares him to find his place among his brothers years later, serving as the leader who brings them together and to safety from the clutches of famine and grief.

The lesson of Joseph and Parker Palmer can help us directly face the divides in our lives with courage. There is direction when we are looking for answers for which we don’t even know the right question to ask. “What are you seeking?” can be a question that comes to us from unexpected sources, like a random person in a field. Let us first sense if there is a division between our inner selves and what we are doing in the world. Then we can be open to the explicit and subtle signs that life sends to us. We will recognize the form of the question: “What are you seeking?” At that point we can turn the corner to search for answers on the path we are genuinely meant to take.

A Jewish Thanksgiving Poem

In honor of Thanksgiving, I want to share this poem with you written by the first Chief Rabbi of Palestine, Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak HaCohen Kook (1865-1935), popularly known as Rav Kook, immediately before the establishment of the State of Israel. Not only was Rav Kook a nation builder – recognizing and bolstering the contributions to the Zionist project of secular and religious pioneers alike -- he was a mystic. This poem reflects that mystical sense of ultimate unity that exists inside of each person and the universe.

It may be nice to read this poem around the Thanksgiving table as a form of prayer. It praises the particularistic and universalistic elements that are both integral to Judaism and to our identity as Americans.

Rav Kook reinterprets the very name of our people, Yisrael, the name that is bestowed upon Ya’akov, in this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlah, as he wrestles with a strange figure he encounters at night, the night before he confronts his brother Esav from whom he fled some twenty years ago. As Ya’akov gets the upper-hand, he wont let this strange being go until he blesses him: The being says: “Your name shall no longer be Ya’akov, but Yisrael, for you have struggled with God and people and have been able to withstand,” (Genesis 32:29). This incident serves as the origin of his name. He was essentially an effective God and people wrestler. The Torah was prescient as this became the name of our people who would wrestle with God and people and be able to withstand two thousand years of exile.

In the poem’s last climatic stanza which weaves together the four levels of song, Rav Kook crowns this symphony with an inspiring reinterpretation of our people’s name with a poetic word-play shifting Yisrael to Shir El, the wrestlers of God to singers of God. With this brilliant shift, Rav Kook re-frames and lifts up the essence of our people, as a people who transforms our protracted struggle for survival into a song textured by our perennial hope and values.

This Thanksgiving, let us celebrate the individual freedoms that the constitution of the Unites States protects. As we gather together with our families, let us be grateful how our largerJewish family contributes to the rich fabric of American society. May this poem and our prayers bolster our hope and comfort even when we are embroiled by struggle inspiring us to transform our struggles into song.

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A Jewish Approach to Life: Oy Vey and Thanksgiving

A waiter checks on his table where a Jewish family is dining and asks, “Is anything ok?”

At the conclusion of his presentation entitled, "Jewish Humor: What the Best Jewish Jokes Say about the Jews," Rabbi Joseph Telushkin wraps up with a few jokes about the way we, as Jews, have used humor to manage the existential challenges of life (go to minute 43:00-44:26 of the presentation). He quips in summary, “Because of Jewish history we are pessimists, because of Judaism we are optimists, so we are optimists with worried looks on our faces.”

The stereotype of Jewish negativity is a strong one and, as mentioned above, there is good reason for it based on Jewish history and current events. However, as Rabbi Telushkin points out, the Jewish impulse does not let negativity define us. Yes, we must see reality for what it is, however, we must also figure out, through humor, re-framing, or faith, how to manage it with optimism and hope. This is true for us as a people or as individuals.

We see a paradigmatic example of this on the personal level in this week’s Torah portion, Vayetze. Since Ya’akov explicitly loved Rachel but was tricked into marrying Leah, Leah felt deprived, which finds expression when she gives birth to her first three children:

Reuven: "...for she said, 'The Lord saw my plight [ra'ah...b'onyi]; yes, now my husband will love me.'" (29:32)

Shimon: "...and [Leah] said, 'The Lord heard [shama] that I am despised and has given me this one too.'" (29:33)

Levi: "...and [Leah] said, 'Now, this time, my husband will be attached [yelaveh] to me, for I have borne to him three sons."

Leah is struggling with God, her husband and her sense of self-worth as she seeks through her sons to fill the void of intimacy with and love from her husband. This negative example of projecting the issues with which she is struggling with her husband onto her sons is a painful one for all involved. Yet, with her fourth son, she transforms her negativity into pure gratitude:  

"...and [Leah] said, 'This time I give thanks [odeh] to the Lord.' She therefore named him Judah [Yehudah]." (29:35)

What happened that she made such a change? We don’t see any shift in the relationship between her and her husband in the text. She is still losing in this painful competition with her sister for the love of her husband even though she is the one succeeding at having children. This time, however, she manages to transform her empty bitterness into passionate praise.

Our great rabbis, sensitive to this shift in attitude and being, recorded in the Talmud in the name of Rabbi Yochanan in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai (Berakhot 7b), “From the day the Holy One, Blessed be God, created the world, no one thanked the Holy One, Blessed be God, until Leah came and thanked God, as it is stated: ‘This time I give thanks....’”

While such a claim may sound exaggerated, it is a recognition of the transformative power involved in Leah’s inner shift of how she related to her place world that was able to transform bitterness into gratitude. Where else is there such an example in the Torah before this moment gratitude expressed with full intentionality and awareness?

As Rabbi Gail Leibovitz PhD and professor of Talmud at American Jewish University notes in her commentary on this portion: “One might thus observe - as both the commentary in Etz Hayim does and as Tammi J. Schneider notes in her comments to this parashah in The Torah: A Women's Commentary - that it is not coincidental that it is particularly this name that comes to form the basis of the name of our people at large.”

As Jews today, we are hyper aware of the dangers that threaten us and our world. The traumatic lessons of our history are marked deep into our being. Do we have the spiritual strength that has also been transmitted through the generations to find the opportunities to express gratitude even with full awareness of reality? The ability to do so is the very basis of our name as a Jewish people. Maintaining hope in the face of despair, faith in the ditches of oblivion, and the desire to live even in exile may be the very characteristic that has kept our people alive through the millennia.

This is the Jewish response to loss that guides the individual in the face of the death of a family member to recite kaddish, the affirmation of God’s sanctity and meaning in life in the midst of one’s community.

As Dr. David Hoffman, Vice Chancellor and Chief Advancement Officer at the Jewish Theological Seminary writes at the end of his commentary on this parashah:

“Fifty years ago, Heschel presciently warned: the human being will not perish for want of information but for want of appreciation. With our Torah reading this Shabbat and in these weeks before Thanksgiving, let us learn from Leah and renew a daily practice of gratitude.”

My Grandfather was a Peddler

Shavuot: Giving of Torah, First Fruits, and Yizkor

My Grandpas on both sides of my family were peddlers. One sold fruits and vegetables and one sold plastic bags. They both ran small local companies, selling to restaurants and bakeries. I worked for a summer with my grandfather who sold produce out of his van to people and businesses looking for a better deal on produce than they could find in the supermarket. He woke up at 4:00am, loaded the van, sorted through the good and bad produce, made individual bags, determined the price in his head, and off he would go. He would often barter with people, i.e., trading produce for coupons at restaurants. While he had a stern exterior (his last name was Sternberg), he had a warm heart, always sharing his goods with his children and grandchildren.

He taught us life lessons: Regarding the dignity of work, "You need to start at the bottom and work your way up;" about treating everyone with respect regardless of their status, "Everyone puts his pants on one leg at a time" or the more crude version, "everyone's sh*t smells;" concerning going the extra mile, "Make sure you ask your boss at the end of the day if there is anything else that you can do;" and lastly, about keeping perspective, "You can't win every ball game."

When I was in rabbinical school, whenever I would come home for vacations, it was my grandfather who would understand what I was going through and share with me the perfect words of advice. He did this without understanding higher education or rabbinic study; he understood life. We had a class in which we would critique each other's sermons. Public speaking was not my strong suit, and having my words, ideas, and style torn apart by my peers and professors was not so constructive for me. Without knowing any details about what I was  experiencing in school, when I saw my grandfather over vacation out of nowhere he said to me, "You know that they are rooting for you!? The people who will be listening to you speak. They don't want to hear a bad speech. They want you to succeed." This profound insight transformed the way I interfaced with groups when speaking publicly.

At the end of his life, my grandfather left the hospital and decided to enter hospice at home. He was propped up while laying on his bed. He would open his large soft hand, worn from years of hard work, at the side of his body to receive the hand of each person who visited him. We took turns going up to him like Jacob's children did for their final blessings. My grandfather would crack a joke,  drawing from the reservoir of his wry humor. We had the precious opportunity as individuals and as a family to say goodbye.    

I woke up very early on New Year's day, and decided to go to minyan, taking a break from the vigil our family created to make sure he wasn't alone. I stopped at his home on the way. When I arrived, one of the caretakers told me he was at the end. He left the two of us alone. I sat with him amazed by the length of time between each inhalation and exhalation. Then he no longer inhaled. I take solace in this mysterious moment of transition between life and death. 

This is my way of honoring my grandfather as we approach the holiday of Shavuot, the day we present our First Fruits before God, receive Torah, and one of the four times of the year that we say yizkor, the special memorial prayer. These memories are my Torah and the First Fruits of the year that I humbly offer as I declare, "My grandfather was a peddler..."

Here is nice article written in the local paper after he died: http://tucson.com/news/local/albert-sternberg-he-sold-fruit-vegetables-all-over-town-and/article_00b5bf47-3f99-5e18-818b-a33f75e4a523.html

  

 

Source: http://tucson.com/news/local/albert-sternb...