Rabbi Elizabeth S. Wood

Rabbi Elizabeth S. Wood
Celebrating Havdallah

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

2 years

My mother, Sharon, died two years ago, today.

In some ways, it's hard to believe it's only been two years.  It feels like a lifetime I've lived without my mother here.  So much has happened, in every single day, that I want to tell her about.  So many little things - things that we would laugh at, or cry over, or discuss, or sing about.  There are big things, too - I'm making some job changes, I've moved apartments,  I fell in love and got engaged.  I'm going to have a wedding (something I know she always wanted to throw for me) and there is something so difficult and bittersweet about realizing her dreams for me, in her absence. 

In other ways, it feels like two years have been gone in the blink of an eye.  If I close my eyes, I can picture myself back in her hospital room, surrounded by my brother, father, aunt, uncle and grandmother, as we held her and whispered "we love you" as she took in her last breath and left this world.  Just like it was yesterday.  I can still see the details of her hands, the crookedness of her smile (which she hated), and the faces she used to make.  I can still hear her laugh, uproarious and contagious, and if I listen very closely I can still hear her heartbeat when she used to hug me and hold me - something a daughter never forgets. 

In distant ways, I can still see all the memories I have of her, in the back of my mind - from the time I was very little up until now. It often feels like an old movie reel, playing highlights over and over in my head.   When someone dies, I think we fear most that we will forget them and all the little moments that contributed to the whole of who they were - to ourselves and to the world.  But, now, I know that isn't true.  In fact, it's all of those little things that surface all the time for me, that remind me of something she used to do or say, of who she used to be and the people she touched.  The further away we get from her life, the more important these little reminders and memories become, to me, in keeping her spirit alive. 

When she first died, people were so gracious and comforting and loving and I've never stopped being grateful for that.  I was so scared that I would be trapped in the grief and pain of losing my best friend and my mother, but I'm not.  With the help of amazing family and friends, I've come through the cloud of grief and settled into bearing a new reality.  It doesn't get easier with time, but it certainly becomes more bearable and we learn better how to live with the emptiness that sits within us.  But that emptiness always resides deep inside.  Even two years later. Perhaps it will reside there forever. 

I spoke with my father, this morning, and he told me that he often feels like we're still living in a dream, that sometimes it's hard to accept this new kind of reality that is so unwelcomed and unfamiliar to the history of our lives.  After all, each of us have had so much more time with her in our lives, than without her.  We spoke about time and how much we 'think' time will help or hurt us, but that ultimately we control what times gives us and we control our memory of her and how she lives on in our lives. 

At her funeral, my friend sang a song I had never heard of before called "Stones Under Rushing Water" by NEEDTOBREATHE.  If you've never heard it, go find it,  it's a beautiful piece.  And, every year, on the anniversary of her death, or at times when I really miss her or am thinking about her, I listen to it.  For some reason, it helps to remind me of all the pain and all the grief and all the blessings and new life and excitement and all the memory and love that exist in the world and that I have for my mother.  It's been two years.  I miss her every day.  But, I am also grateful for the love and guidance she gave me, for the blessings of her life that still live on in the people she knew and loved and touched.  It's hard, but life goes on, beating forward, and her memory shines brightly within us, living on, as well.

Why don't we dance anymore?
I'm not okay with that
Why don't we laugh anymore?
I'm not okay with that

The years go by
Like stones under rushing water
We only know
We only know
when it's gone....

Yeah, the years go by
Like stones under rushing water
We only know
We only know
when it's gone....

Monday, October 20, 2014

Yom Kippur Sermon 5775 - Creative Midrash

Jonah: The Prequel
I was born a cursed man. I'm not famous. Not yet, at least. But soon, everyone is going to know my name: Jonah. Some people would eventually call me a prophet, but I never liked that term. It's always implied something special or good about me and I don't think I'm a particularly good person. No, I prefer the name Jonah. In Hebrew it means “dove” which I guess makes sense. I was always taking flight, ever since I could remember. Even as a baby, I was quick to walk, preferring not to crawl but to learn how to move as fast as I could, jetting from point A to point B, just to see how fast I could get there. Adults called me curious, but looking back I know it was a combination of mischief and movement that would shape my life. Curiosity is just a nice word for it. Later on, my speed and desire to flee served me well. I'd get into trouble and leave, just like that. I was always running, from my family, from my troubles, maybe even trying to run from myself. And for most of my early life, I was pretty good at flying away. Until it all eventually caught up with me. I couldn't run any longer – I had to face everything about who I was, what I knew, and what my job would eventually be. But, I'm getting ahead of myself. I don't want to tell you about how I got famous and what I did and that giant awful fish. Not really. I want to tell you about who I am and where it all began.
Even if I wasn't a great person, there was something undeniably different about me. Perhaps it's why I was always trying to escape, to leave, to get away from it all. Because I could never really figure out how to get away...from that voice. I always heard it. I can't remember a time in my life when I didn't hear that voice, speaking to me, like everyone else was speaking to me. But I remember the first time that I really became aware of it, and knew that I was different.
I was about 7 years old and my cousin and I were playing in the great big waters. Usually we just went down there to bathe but it was a particularly hot summer day. I never really liked being in the water, but I liked that it could move me faster than I could move on my own. So, I learned how to swim and let it move me along. I loved the feel of the reeds against my skin as I moved fast, darting in and out like the schools of fish we could see in the crystal clear depths. My cousin and I were playing a game to see how long we could stay underwater before we needed to get to the top and find some air. He was pretty good, but I knew that I could be better. So I took a deep breath, held my nose, and plunged underwater. As I sank lower and lower into the cool wetness, I knew I was going to win. I was just about ready to come up for air when I realized that I couldn't move my foot. It was trapped. It was as though something had a hold on it. It didn't hurt but I couldn't moved it and I suddenly became aware of the fact that I was running out of air. I panicked. I flailed my arms as fast as could be and heaved my body back and forth, trying to free myself from whatever was holding me down. And that's when I heard it. That voice. It wasn't unfamiliar to me. Like I said, I had always heard it, but I'd never really been aware of it. It was like background noise, most of the time. But suddenly my mind was razor sharp and focused on the only sound I could hear. “Relax....” it said. “Breathe....” I panicked all over again. Where was that voice coming from? There was no one down there with me, in the depths of those waters. But it came again, as clear as could be. “Relax...” I felt the voice wash over me and for the first time, I really listened to it. I stopped moving my arms and my legs and I let my whole little body relax. My foot must have been hooked on something because the second I let my body go limp, my foot released from its trap and I floated to the surface. It wasn't until I was above water, sputtering out liquid from my nose and mouth, that I realized what had happened. A voice, that was not me and not anyone else, had told me what to do. It had saved me. And I was terrified. What was this voice? Where did it come from? Why did I hear it all the time, now? What was happening to me? Why couldn't anyone else hear this voice, like I did? I didn't understand it. I knew I was cursed. So, I left.
I left my family early on, when I was still a boy, and not quite yet a man. . I left my family because they didn't understand me. They didn't feel my need to get away, all the time, to try new things and to have fun. I never liked being told what to do, from them or from anyone. They certainly didn't understand that voice I had once tried to explain to them. They just thought I was a freak. So, I left. Who needs them, anyway?
I didn't like the water, but I realized that the great big waters were a means to an end. There were a lot of people there traveling in and out, trying to sell things, trying to make a living. I found like-minded people who dwelled along the great big waters. They were always traveling back and forth, here and there, seeking what they wanted, meeting new people, doing as they pleased. I gravitated towards that lifestyle. That sense of freedom, of independence, of carefree days. I wanted that. I craved that. They weren't the best of people. In fact, they often lied, cheated, and stole to get what they needed. But, I didn't mind that. It kept me on my toes, always trying to stay one step ahead of everyone else. I didn't judge them or care what they did, as long as they didn't hurt me and stop me from making money. As long as I could run free and move when I wanted and where I wanted, I was happy.
Soon after I left my family, I met an old man, named Amittai, who took me in. Like me, he understood the need to be free and to keep moving. He always made sure I had shelter and food. He taught me how to do business, too. He trained me to know how to sell and trade and barter for what we needed, in exchange for what other people wanted. We had fun, too. He loved hearing my stories from home and didn't seem to mind when I told him about that voice. In fact, he quite liked it – it often helped me understand people that we did business with and figure out what to do when we were in trouble. It was a good partnership, between me and Amittai – he had knowledge and experience, and I was young and had energy and....intuition. But it was more than that, what we had. He really was like a father to me. He looked after me and understood me and treated me like I was worthy of his time. In many ways, he was the only family that I ever had, even if it was of our own making. For the first time, I WAS happy...that is, until I was cursed, again.
We had been in a new city for about 2 moons. Ami had gotten comfortable with the local traders and merchants and sailors. And they were getting to know us, too. Until one night, things took a wrong turn. I was fast asleep, my back sore from carrying heavy loads all day, when suddenly I was being shaken awake. “Get up, Jonah.” Ami said. He looked serious but calm. “We have to make a deal, tonight.” “Right now?” I said. His eyes told me the answer. So I dragged myself up, threw on my clothes, and followed my friend out to the great big waters. I trusted Ami, and I didn't want to tell him that the voice was urging me not to go. I felt the voice envelop me like the thick fog that was piercing the cool night air. But, like I often did when I thought I knew better, I ignored it, shrugged it off my shoulders like an old blanket and followed after my friend. “Stay here” Ami told me. “Like all the guys we deal with, these guys are a little tough. But they're offering me a good deal for our stuff. I don't think they're dangerous, but I just want you to be safe. Watch and learn how to deal with these kind of guys.” I nodded, listening to my old friend, my business partner, my mentor, and crouched into a small space in a stone wall, so I could see him, but stay of sight. I watched him walk away, down towards the waters. As he left, I longed to go after him, to stop him, to bring him back. But, I didn't. I just stayed very still and kept my eyes open.
Three men approached Ami, down by the waters. I couldn't see their faces, only the outline of their bodies. One was short and wide and the other two were taller. Ami immediately produced our goods for the buyers to see. It only took a few seconds for what happened next. One of the tall men grabbed Ami while the others struck him. I couldn’t move. I was afraid. All I could hear was that voice saying, “Stay here. Stay safe. Stay here.” I watched Ami fall into the waters, as I was paralyzed by fear for my best friend. It was the first time in my life I couldn't move, as desperately as I wanted to. The three men took our goods and left. I rushed over to Ami and dragged him out of the waters onto the shore, but I knew it was too late for him. I held my friend as he left this world and I sobbed over him. “Why?” I cried out. “Why did I listen to that voice and stay?” I could have helped him. I could have stopped them. I could have done something. But, instead, I had nothing. All of our goods were gone, and I was alone – having lost the only person in the world who ever felt like my family. I shut the voice off and every time I heard it, I ignored it. It was just too painful. It wasn't just that I was cursed, it was that everything I touched, everyone I knew, they were cursed, too.
So, I moved along. As the years rolled by, I learned how to fend for myself, how to trade goods on my own, and how to survive. Ami had taught me well and my business was enough for me to live off of, and have a little extra too. I never forgot Ami, what he taught me, or what happened, but I was starting to feel good again – running my own life the way that I liked. People were starting to know me for me and knew they could trust me to do business with them. I felt like, with my loss of Ami, that I had seen the worst the world could offer. I knew pain and suffering. I was finally on the road to happiness and freedom. Until one day, I got cursed all over again. It was the most common way any person can be cursed. Maybe you've heard of it: The total and complete agony of LOVE.
I'll never forget that day that I first met her. It's as crystal clear in my memory, as if it happened yesterday. I was trading with the sailors on the shore of the great big waters when I looked up and there she was. Long, curly black flowing hair, beautiful smooth skin, and a confidence about her I cannot explain. My heart was beating fast and my mouth was suddenly dry. “I'm Jonah, son of Amittai,” I said. I was surprised that my throat could actually pull words from it. “I'm Neera,” she replied warmly, smiling at me with her eyes. My heart fluttered and I felt light-headed. But her warm eyes and her sweet smile steadied me. “I work with my father, over there, to help our family business.” I barely glanced over at the man she was pointing to, captivated by every motion she was making and every breath she took. “Oh” I said. STUPID. What kind of a line is that? But she just smiled at me, waved, and turned to leave. “I hope I'll see you around, for a while,” she said as she turned and ran towards her father. I exhaled. Yes, you certainly will see me around.
Over the next several moons, I saw Neera every single day. I learned about her life and tried to understand who she really was. Her mother had died giving birth to her and her brothers were out on the seas, fishing for their family business. So, that left her on shore to work with her father and sell and trade their goods and fare. She was very close with her father and loved him very much. So, I did what any love-struck man does, and I helped them out, showing up every day to work with them. Lucky for me, her father seemed to take a liking to me, as well. He often invited me to join them for evening bread. Neera and her family were Hebrews, worshiping one God, whom they considered to be the Source of everything – good, bad, and even all the things we can't explain. I had never really given much thought to it all, before, but the more I learned about it from them, the more it made sense. God doesn't exist in things, in small little statues or pictures that we make, but rather in what is made around us, in what already exists, in moments and experiences. God was the one who made the waters and the land and everything in it. I liked it. It fit what I had always thought, but never really understood. “I am a Hebrew too,” I announced one day to Neera and her father. “I believe in one God, both wrathful and loving.” They looked up at me, pleased, and quietly returned to their work. I saw Neera look back up at me, and give a quick wink and a smile. I felt triumphant. I felt as though things finally felt right. Being with Neera was easy – she was warm and kind and taught me about her land and I told her stories of my world and who I was. Every day with her was new and interesting and I could feel myself growing, actually changing, because of someone else. It both excited me and terrified me, beyond belief.
After one full turn of the sun, I realized that I had to leave. My business was slowing down, I could no longer support myself and I knew it was time for me to keep moving, to find new sellers to trade with. My business, and my life, thrived when I was on the move. I had been running my whole life, but this time, I wanted someone to run with me. “Come with me, Neera,” I urged. “Your father can come too. I love you both and it's time for me to move on....but, I want you to move with me. Will you be my wife?” Neera looked at me as though I had asked her to transform into a giant big fish. “I can't,” she said. “My life is here. My home is here. My brothers will return to us from the seas and if we're not here, how would they find us? I love you, Jonah, but I can't go with you. Why can't you just stay here, with us? We love having you.” The tears welled up in my eyes, but I blinked them away. “I thought you understood me. I thought you knew who I was, after all this time. I can never stay. There is too much to see and do and run towards.” And then, I heard that voice, the one I shut away for so many years, and it spoke through me. “It's my destiny to go. It's my future to leave here. I just don't want to leave you....” “I can't,” she repeated. And her shoulders began to heave as her sobs unleashed like a mighty torrent. My heart ripped in two. I kissed her cheek softly. “I'll always love you,” I said, realizing the weight of my words. The finality in them. “Me too,” she answered softly. “Me too.”
So, I left. The first person I ever loved was taken from me. The second person I ever loved, well....I guess that was my doing. That's the thing about being cursed. You can feel joy and love and alive, but there's still pain and confusion and doubt. After Ami's death, I had resigned myself to loneliness and emptiness, and Neera changed that for me. She taught me it was possible to love and feel happiness, again. She helped me to understand that there were forces in this world beyond my control. No matter how far I run, I can never escape that love, or all of my heart-break, or everything I learned. The difference is, that I know who I am, now. I know why I run and I know what I believe in and what I've seen and what my life can hold. I don't always like it, and I will always prefer to run away from it, rather than towards it. I guess that's part of knowing who I am. I am not a particularly good person – in fact, I'm quite flawed. I am just a human, a human who senses and hears and feels and who needs to keep moving. Maybe that voice is some kind of special gift, but it doesn't change who I am, deep down inside. Not really.
I know I am a cursed man. And my story is not yet done. I know that whatever comes next, it will continue to be built upon the sum of all of my experiences. Every decision I make might not be the best one, but it's mine to make and it's mine to stand by. After all, whether you're cursed or not, whether you hear that voice too or not, we are all humans, living and learning and I guess that’s what we're all trying to do – just live our lives and move forward, as best we can.
So that’s me, Jonah. There’s a lot more, but it will all unfold, over time. Like the rest of us, all we can do is live and learn and keep on moving.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

SuperMichael and SuperPhyllis

Michael and Liz, visiting during her Year-in-Israel, 2005

It was the summer of 1999 at Goldman Union Camp Institute.  I was still in high school and I was spending my summer working and studying in the Avodah program at camp.  I met Phyllis Sklar, a rabbinical student who was working at GUCI for the summer, and she was very friendly to me. 
I met her fiancé, Michael Sommer , when he came to visit her, but it wasn't until the following summer, when he was working at GUCI too, that we all really became friends. 

You have to understand - I was a tall, overweight, unconfident, not-so-funny-yet teen.  People who seemed to genuinely like me felt very rare, to me. Who were these two and where did they come from??

In the summer of 2001, Michael (still a rabbinical student) returned to GUCI and I spent my 2nd year on staff (a sophomore in college) and that's when our friendship really solidified.  Even though he was much older than me, we really connected.  He could see in me all the things I couldn't really yet see in myself. He seemed to take such pride in the good work I was doing as a counselor and staff member.   He used to tell me, "We don't always get to choose our family.  But we always get to choose our friends who become our family." I learned so much from him, that summer, about life and love and hard work and fun and friendship.

As a college student at IU, I probably visited Michael and Phyllis at their home in Cincinnati once a month for the following few years. We all grew so remarkably close over those years, as we experienced so much together in each other's lives.   I even spent part of a summer in their upstairs attic room when I was studying Hebrew at HUC-JIR to get into rabbinical school.  When they left Cincinnati to head up to Chicago, I saw them slightly less frequently, but never with less intensity to our visits.  Our bonds over the years only strengthened as our family and our own friends became intertwined in one another's lives.

I was there when each of their kids were born.  I was there through their ordinations and they were there through my graduation, ordination, and even as my mother lay dying, last year. I'll never forget how grateful I was to Phyllis for driving me and my grandmother to my mother's dying bedside, or when she and Michael sang softly in her hospital room, rubbing my shoulders as I wept.

I weep now, for my dear friends and their tragic loss of Sammy. 

Michael and Phyllis are amazing.  Not just for what they've been through, but for who they are.
They were my friends when I felt as though I'd never understand what real friendship was. 
They were my first "family" members outside of my own who would take me in and go on to be lifelong friends. 
They were my mentors and now my colleagues - I always look to Phyllis when I have any "rabbinical" inspiration that I need. Every rabbi needs their own rabbi, too.
They create a life for themselves much like a kibbutz - everyone is a valued member (and everyone pitches in around their house), everyone gets to be with them and is included, everyone is a part of their family.
They taught me about warmth and friendship and creating relationships with people that are meaningful and significant and that weave throughout the fabric of our lives.

There are so many stories, memories, and inside jokes that we've shared, that it would take a lifetime to retell them all again.

Over the last few days, people have remarked to me about how lucky they are to have me in their life and to be their friend, but everyone has it all backwards.  I am the lucky one. 

I am lucky that I found friends who have, literally, changed the shape and scope and narrative of my life. In every stage and at nearly every age, they've been there.  I am lucky that I have lifelong friends who have helped support me and love me in my terrible teens, tumultuous twenties, and slightly-more-stable thirties.  But, I am not surprised.  Because that is just who they are. They are SuperMichael and SuperPhyllis.

As Sam's "Auntie Liz" I will never stop weeping for the pain and suffering he had to endure these last many months and for the unfinished symphony of his life.  As Michael and Phyllis's inner circle, I will always try to hold them up and support them and carry them, as best I can.  Because that is exactly what you do for your family.  And that is what Michael and Phyllis have always taught me - we go through this life but once, and it's about the people we meet and the relationships we sustain that count above everything, and anything, else. 

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Over the last several months, I cannot seem to stop thinking about “thestrals”. Before this year, I did not understand this magical and mythical creature in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series. Thestrals, as we understand them from the 5th book in the series, are gaunt dark horses with wings, but can only be seen by someone who has encountered death. They were there from the very beginning of the series, driving the so-called “horseless carriages” from the train station to Hogwarts, but it is not until Harry witnesses the death of his friend, Cedric Diggory, that he can finally see them. It suddenly puts Harry in a different category, with eyes opened and aware of new things around him, because he has seen and known death.
Before this last year, I didn't really understand what these thestrals represented. As a rabbi, I sit with the dying, and then the bereaved, quite often. They didn't always seem so different to me. Why, after experiencing a death, would the world suddenly seem different, with new and different things in it, to that person? It wasn't until this last year, when I experienced my own tremendous loss that I finally understood: It's not that we see things differently, it is that the world becomes different to us. As one woman in my bereavement group often suggests, “When our loved one died, the trivial things of this world died away as well. We don’t see the world in color, anymore. We are confronted with the reality of black and white and how to navigate in that kind of world.”
In truth, I'm not sure it's that easy of an explanation. Now don't get me wrong - This has been the hardest year of my life. The pain of suddenly losing the closest person in the world to me, who happened to be my mother, role model, confidant and my best friend all rolled into one, was unbearable most days. At the age of 30, I never expected to lose my 61 year old mother, and I miss her more and more every day that she is not here with me. But in those first few days, and even now as I continue to feel this reverberation of grief in my life, I never stopped seeing the world in color. In fact, I've felt a heightened sense of love, support, and gratitude. The triviality of things in this world fell away for me, for sure. And the world is a completely different place for me than before, even though I may appear the same on the outside. But the choice I made to find hopefulness in all of this, and to continue to find beauty and color in our world was the only reality I could bear as I began the monumental task of learning to live my life without my mother.
My mother was the epitome of positivity and hopefulness. She always made the choice to see the glass half full. She believed there was a solution to every problem in life, even if it just meant looking at it from every possible angle. But sitting with her after one of the many blood transfusions she received in the ten weeks between her diagnosis of leukemia and her untimely death, I will never forget when she turned to me, in a weakened moment and said, “You know, Elizabeth, control is just an illusion. We always think we're in control of things, but it turns out that we're not. In the end, we have so little say over what ultimately happens in our lives.” And like all the wise things my mother used to say, she was absolutely right. Control is just an illusion. It comforts us when we are scared and reassures us when we have doubt. But it is not real. If it were, my mother would still be here today, and perhaps a loved one of yours would still be here too. It's a hard concept to swallow that we have no real control over what might happen to us, in our lives. But, luckily, my mother also spent my entire life telling me that the one thing we could control were the choices we make in this world. We cannot control what happens to us, but we can always control how we react and the outcome of our own actions. And, of course, she was also right. You see, it's a fine line between illusion and reality and the difference is control versus choice. Control is just an illusion, but choice is our reality. However, it is not until we are faced with the fragility of life, the possibility of death, and the pain of loss that we, perhaps, can ever fully understand this tension. Control is an illusion, but how we respond, that choice is our reality.
On Yom Kippur morning, we read from the book of Deuteronomy that advises us to choose life. It says, “I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse - - therefore choose life1.” Now, this does not literally mean that we can stop death by choosing life. If only. It means that we have a choice about how to live our lives, in the face of despair and curse and hopelessness. It reminds us that in every situation, no matter how dire or difficult, we always have a choice on how to respond, how to react, and how to proceed. And it is those choices, in particular, that will dictate how we live our lives, how we find blessings in the curse, and how we find life even in the face of death.
In some ways, I believe that the thestrals from Harry Potter represent the choices that we can now see. The veil of illusion was lifted from Harry's eyes. He can no longer ignore the realities of life so he must make choices on how to live with this greater understanding of the world. Illusion and the illusion of control are gone and that is what makes reality so evident, what awakens us to the truth and fragility of life around us.
This last Wednesday was the twelve year anniversary of the attacks on September 11th. If ever there was a day in our recent history that was more stark and grim reality than control, it was that one, and the days that followed. But in our collective loss, there was not only pain and suffering and fear. There was also hope, and love and a desire to work through grief, together. Rick Hamlin, the executive editor of Guideposts magazine wrote a beautiful article last year about his memories on the days that followed September 11th, 2001. He wrote: Not long after that day, when the sirens of police cars and ambulances still set us on edge, when the streetlamp poles and sides of telephone booths were still plastered with black-and-white posters of the missing saying, “Have you seen?” of “If you have any information on...” I was crossing 33rd street. The woman walking in front of me was clearly grieving, paying no attention to where her feet were taking her, meandering in a fog. Without knowing it, she ran directly into a cop on the corner.
I took a deep breath. A New York cop is not someone to mess with, certainly not to run into. He held out his arms, though, holding her gently by the shoulders and looked her in the eyes as if to say, 'You going to be all right? Did you lose a loved one too? We'll get through this, OK?' Then, he did something remarkable. He gave her a gentle hug, patting her on the back, before they separated and she moved on. If ever a hug was a prayer, there it was. Barriers had dropped, compassion took over protocol, love spoke.
It's what I remember most about those sad days, the lesson I still take with me on the streets of New York. Watch out, look up, someone's sure to be aching or grieving. Be ready to care. Be ready to reach out. A hug can be a prayer.2
What I love most about this story is the choice that the police officer made. He too was confronted with the reality of loss and grief when he got run over by that woman who knocked into him. But, instead of telling her to watch where she was going, he made a choice. He recognized her pain, he realized he had no control over the whole situation, and he chose life – affirming her by embracing her and comforting her in her most painful hour.
Loss is a universal experience. Whether it is personal, communal, or national loss, there isn't one of us here who won't feel it significantly in our lifetime. We each have meaningful and deep relationships that enrich our lives. And it is because of the beauty and strength of those relationships that we end up feeling our pain and our grief so deeply, when these people cease to exist. It's the classic example of King Solomon and the baby. A real mother, one who loves and cherishes and cultivates a relationship with her child, would never let Solomon split the baby, for fear that it would harm the child. It's much easier to lose something we never loved, in the first place, than to give up something that we treasure most of all.
But we all must lose. That's the reality of being human and knowing that we are not infinite beings. I think about how blind I was at this time, last year. On Yom Kippur 5773, my mother was fine, without a diagnosis of cancer and with no knowledge of what the coming weeks and months would quickly bring. Life can change in the blink of an eye and more can happen in a year than you ever imagined or expected. Although we are never prepared for tremendous loss ahead of time, we can consciously think about the choice we have in what to do in the aftermath, in how to relate to others, in how to perceive the world, and in the way in which we care for ourselves and our loved ones.
You, our Reform Temple of Forest Hills, have helped me to find life, even in the face of death. You made the beautiful and conscious choice to support me, to reach out to me and my family through notes, donations, phone calls, meals and expressions of sympathy over the last many months and embrace us as we faced the most difficult moments of all. Each one of these acts have overwhelmed and surprised us, and we are so deeply touched by your actions of kindness and comfort. From the bottom of our hearts, my family and I cannot thank you enough for this blessing of community and support. The gratitude we feel towards you is immeasurable.
The choices that we make to choose life are reflected in the actions that we take, whether comforting someone who has had loss, responding to communal loss, or learning how to live when confronted with our own personal loss. The answer is not to respond with pure positivity and a disingenuous sense of reality. Phrases like, “everything will be okay”, “you're gonna get through this”, and “time heals all wounds” should be thrown right out the window. Instead, our actions can reflect our deep caring for other people, patience with ourselves as we learn to grieve and learn to live without, and an understanding that life is completely different now, once the loss has occurred. Grief is a tremendous teacher, and though the world can seem different, it does not have to include only anger, hurt, and sorrow. It can also include compassion, reflection, and perspective.
The story is told of an old Chinese woman who had two water cans which were attached to a pole. Each day, she put the pole over her shoulders and went down to the river, filled the cans, and walked back to her modest hut. The water can on the right side of her pole was fine and sturdy; when she arrived home it was always full. But the can on the left had a crack in it. By the time the woman arrived home, half of the water was usually gone.
The water can always felt inferior to it's partner. It was ashamed that it was cracked and broken and wasn't pulling it's weight. One day, it turned to the woman and apologized for being so defective. The woman smiled gently and said, “Did you think that I didn't notice that you had a crack, and water dripped from you? Look at the path from the river to my hut. Do you see all the beautiful flowers that are growing on the one side of the path? Those are the flowers I planted there, that you watered every day as I walked home from the river.”
Each one of us is broken in some way. Each one of us can see people around us who are broken and in need of love, care, and attention to what hurts them most. We cannot always control what makes us broken, but we can always make the choice on how we move through it, how we respond to it, and what we can take from it.
One of the greatest lessons that I have learned in this last year is that everything is finite. When our lives are done, they are done. And so, it REALLY is important to make moments count and be unafraid to say what really matters to you and whom matters most. Why are we always so afraid of telling others just how much we love them, how important they are to us, or how much they enrich our lives? Not just family, but friends, co-workers, and people we know in our community. We cannot let moments of love and appreciation and opportunity pass us by. When our lives are done, they are done. It is so important to tell others exactly how much they mean to you when you feel it most. I've also learned to be unafraid of the consequences of making decisions. Life is about experiencing the choices we make and not always being held up by fear or the illusion of control over certain situations. If we live our entire lives in a “comfort zone” than we are playing into a sense of control that we only imagine and that will eventually come crashing down around us. By taking chances and embracing a little bit of risk, you never know who or what might be waiting right around the corner for you that will open up your life in a totally new and different way. And, of course, I've learned to be kinder, more compassionate, and more generous with my time and energy when it comes to others. You never know who might be hurting, when a friendly hug or an ear to listen to them, might be just the prayer they need at that moment. I cannot control what happens in my life and you cannot control what happens in yours, but we can choose to be there for each other in our greatest hour of need. Our loss is going to hurt and we cannot run from it. We cannot stop creating and making significant relationships for fear of what happens when they end. Instead, we must choose to put as much as we can into them and then be secure in the knowledge that amidst all of our pain, the love and comfort of others will always surround us.
Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year. It is a day of reflection, repentance, and acceptance. In essence, it is a day about choice, and about confronting the illusion of control and thinking about how we accept reality and make choices that are good for us in our life. Although we focus on atonement today, what we're really doing is examining the choices that we've made that have brought us to this place and time. These choices aren't just about ways in which we've done things poorly, they are also about learning how to choose life, how to be real and honest with ourselves, and how to make the most out of each moment that we are given. I would give all of these lessons back, in a moment, just to have ten more minutes with my mother. But I cannot control that. Instead, I am left with the reality of her loss....and I choose life. I choose sharing her positivity and her belief in the goodness of this world and the importance of building deep relationships with others. I choose love, and patience, and compassion, and vivaciousness, even in the face of despair and a life that is totally and completely different now that she is gone. But not just because that is who she was or who I am, but because that is what this day is about. It's about starting fresh and saying, what choices will I make this year, so that I can fully embrace life, even though I cannot control it?
Mahatma Ghandi once said, “ I shall pass through this world but once. Any good therefore that I can do or any kindness that I can show to any human being, let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way, again.” Our lives are a series of ups and downs, most of which we really have no control over. Some days are harder and some days are easier. And none of us is immune to what will inevitably be great loss. At some point in our lives, our eyes will be opened to the reality of life and it's fragility. But, the choice is ours on how we respond, on how we persevere, on how we live each day. Do we choose love or do we choose fear? Do we choose comfort and compassion or do we turn the other way? Do we choose control and illusion or do we choose reality? Do we choose death or do we choose life? The choice is up to you. May each of you find a life that is worth living, even in the face of difficulty. May each of you make choices that help you support others and feel supported by them, in the ups and downs that occur on the journey of life. May each of you be brave enough to confront reality head on, rather than live under the illusion of control. May each of you be written as a blessing in the Book of Life. And if that doesn't go according to plan, we'll figure out how to move forward, one day and one choice at a time. 
1Deuteronomy 30:19
2Hamlin, Rick. Guideposts., Sept 2012

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Shema in the Sound Booth - Shavuot

I wrote this piece last year (2012), after attending and helping out at WAREHOUSE SHABBAT

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about standing at Sinai. As Shavuot approaches, I am reminded of the notion that we all stood at Sinai together as we received Torah from God. You were there, and you were there, and you too. You were standing right next to me as we got those sacred instructions. Don’t you remember? It was a very long time ago. Sometimes I have a hard time remembering we were all there together, too.
I also have a really hard time learning how to really bring in Shabbat. It’s not that I don’t make time for it – quite the opposite. I’m a rabbi. I celebrate Shabbat (almost) every week. But, I’m often so concerned with the details and orchestration of the service I’m leading that I don’t ever truly let myself go and relax and feel all the things that I like to help others feel. I espouse peace and rest and worship, but the truth is that I am working. And while I love the work that I do, it’s hard for me to find moments of holiness, of connection, of true release. Just because I’m a rabbi, it doesn’t mean that spiritual enlightenment comes any easier for me.
A few weeks ago, I offered to step in and help my friends run Warehouse Shabbat. I was familiar with the service after seeing it a few months ago at a convention, but I was eager to see it in its natural habitat – a hip lower east side bar on a Friday night filled with young Jews. The food was delicious. The drinks were great. The crowd was really a fun group and the band sounded awesome. But I was there to work. I tucked myself back into the sound booth with Billy (the sound guy!) and focused on the laptop in front of me, prepared not to miss a stitch with the slides, videos, and supplemental images and prayers I was about to help conjure up.
And then, something incredible happened. I let go. We began singing the Shema, slowly and quietly. No instruments, just our voices. It felt singular. I was scared of it, at first, but this feeling washed over me until I was completely consumed. We continued singing, chanting almost, a mantra of our people. And the voices around me exploded. The instruments layered their sound with ours. I was transformed. I stood there, in the sound booth, eyes closed, body swaying, and I was no longer there. I was standing at Sinai and so were the people around me. They always had been. I just couldn’t remember it until at that moment when I was lifted up and struck. Our voices were like a chord that penetrated history, penetrated time and space and place, penetrated our very being. It didn’t matter that I didn’t really know these people in the bar around me. I did know them. In that moment, we connected, we took our places once again at Sinai and together we received Torah. Our voices were one.
And then, it was over, almost as quickly as it came on. I sat down, and I played the next video.
But something about that moment changed me. It renewed me. It taught me. Community is everywhere and accessible all the time. We just need to open our eyes and our ears to the people around us. Judaism also surrounds us, in every moment. We just need the right tools to access it. Music, prayer, intention. But we also need to not get so wrapped up in always trying to make it happen. Sometimes, we just need to let go. Sometimes we cannot be afraid of letting go. Sometimes, we cannot worry about where we are, or who we are with, or what we are doing – we just have to be open to what we are given and the experience before us.
I might have been singing Shema in the sound booth that night, but I will always feel as though I was REALLY standing at Sinai, opening up my heart and my eyes and my ears to God and to the Jewish people. It might have started with my voice, but your voice was there, and yours too, and even yours. I remember now. I remember.

Friday, May 10, 2013

A question of moral responsibitlity

Often times, the greatest questions of morality and character do not reflect how to achieve happiness or whether something is definitively right or wrong. Rather, the challenge comes from our moral responsibility to care for others, to care for our cherished but broken world, and how to partner with God in continuing the daily renewed work of creation. The Jewish tradition teaches that even the poorest among us is capable of giving to others - whether through time, action, or intention.  In that way, we understand that we are  all privileged and imbued with a spirit that is capable of giving. Moreover, it is is our moral and ethical responsibility, as privileged human beings of God's world, to share in that responsibility to promote equality, to advocate for social justice, and to mend our world. As it states in Deuteronomy 15:7-8, "If among you one of your fellow humans should become poor, in any of the towns of the land which Adonai your God gave to you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against them, but you shall open your hard and give them what is needed, whatever it may be."

As religious and spiritual beings, it is not enough it simply pray for good and expect it to come. We must be continuously committed to the hard and, often, difficult work of speaking up and speaking out and taking action so that all of God's children can live in harmony in our world. Then, and only then, will it be possible to think about calling this place Eden, once again.

Friday, April 26, 2013

What drives you to do Social Justice? Reflections from the Brickner Rabbinic Program

The question was so simple.  “What drives you to do social justice?”  But the answer was so complex and varied.  The themes were similar: family role models, personal experiences of injustice, a sense of responsibility and moral obligation.  But each one of us had a story to tell, a piece to uncover, a truth to reveal.  After 15 months of knowing the people in the room with me, I realized that maybe I didn’t really know them that well at all.  And all it takes, to really get to know a person, is to ask a simple question and let their story unfold.
I just returned from the Religious Action Center’s Consultation on Conscience. As a 2012-2013 Brickner Rabbinic Fellow, this was the culminating event to months of study, prayer, and exploration on social advocacy, as it pertains to being a rabbi. But it was more than that.  It was the culmination of months of being in relationship with a great group that helped me realize what it means to be passionate about social justice, to rely on one another professionally to help better our world, and to live with holy intention in the work that we do.
And yet, there was something so powerful, so organically raw and moving in the room as we closed out our final moments together as a group.  Rabbi Steve Fox, Chief Executive of the CCAR, invited us to reflect for a moment.  In most cases, you would expect us to reflect back on the last 15 months and the experiences shared in the program.  But we didn’t do that.  We did something much more sacred, much more meaningful and much more useful.  We shared words with one another about our own personal journeys and lives in relation to changing, healing, and helping our broken world.  It had all the potential to go wrong and be self-serving and egotistical.  But it wasn’t.  It was beautiful. In that moment, our group took the trust that had been building in those 15 months and we unleashed our stories – painful, funny, heartfelt – and we crea
ted sacred space to continue connecting our lives with one another.
That moment continued to teach us about social advocacy, about the holiness that comes from hearing and sharing stories and recognizing the beauty of the human spirit and the power of community.  Social advocacy is nothing without recognizing that we are all human beings, with complex stories and histories and lives, and that we are all in this world together, trying to create a better world so that all may live with dignity and freedom.  But it begins by listening and by sharing.
The question was so very simple.  But I am grateful that it was asked.  Because with it, I was able to understand what the last 15 months truly were about – making sacred connections so that I can be empowered to continue partnering with God and with my fellow human beings in order to help create a more perfect world through social advocacy, social justice and tikkun olam.