Rabbi Elizabeth S. Wood

Rabbi Elizabeth S. Wood
Celebrating Havdallah

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Beha'alotecha - Committing ourselves to service

This week, we read from the Torah portion entitled Beha'alotecha meaning " when you raise up" in reference to the lamps (menorah) that Aaron was commanded to build, from God. While there is much to be gleaned from this portion, I've always loved it's aptly named title - the idea of raising something up, elevating it, in order to make it more special, more significant, and even holy.

Fifteen years ago, I had some pretty significant stuff to say about this portion - it was the portion that I read from for my Bat Mitzvah. Though I'm not sure where any of the paraphernalia of the big day has gone - you know, the certificate, the invitation, a copy of my speech (I'm, admittedly, a little jealous of jazzrabbi's photos from his post), I do remember the things I spoke about, my impressions of the day, and the way in which those things lead me down the path to where I am today.

In this parsha, the purification of the Levites is described, and they are actually elevated before God as an offering - they are to be set apart from other Israelites and are placed before God through their service to the Sanctuary. When I was 13, the idea of service called out to me. Judaism, at the time, was for me a call to being part of a community, to doing good in the world, to helping others through mitzvot and g'milut chasadim (acts of loving kindness). My drash (sermon) was about the importance of service - through any means possible: giving of your time, your money, your skills so that others may benefit from your gifts.

Today, I find that I am much more fascinated by the importance of that day in my life...and the idea of "beha'alotecha" - to raise up. Whereas most of the kids my age were interested in "just getting through it" I felt such a spirit within me as I led my congregation in worship, read from the Torah, and engaged in a sacred Jewish ritual. It was the first time that I can remember when Jewish ritual (aside from weekly Shabbat services) took on a huge important role in my life. Although I may not have felt like a woman or an adult, I did truly take pride in my Judaism and my spirituality on that day. My journey to, and through, Judaism has always been significant to me. Though it is often hard to articulate my path to the rabbiniate, I find that looking back helps me to pinpoint some of those sacred key moments. I can see, now, that my Bat Mitzvah was one of those moments.

The idea of setting someone or some group apart, and raising them up, is a scary notion. What purpose does it serve? What does it accomplish? Is it neccessary? But here it is, in our Torah, clear as day. As a new rabbi, I am constantly thinking about the ways in which others try to set me apart, even elevate me, in ways that are new to me. Often times it is a scary notion for me to think about. After all, I'm only human, and being elevated or distinct to someone else is a lot of pressure and responsibility. But I am reminded that elevation can also bring about awareness of the significance and importance of something - that it can be a great reminder to me of the sacred task I have to help lead the Jewish people to make this a better world.

I suppose there is a distinction between me and other Jews. I have committed myself, dedicated myself, to a life of learning Torah, of engaging with the Jewish people, of service to God. I have chosen a career (and a life) that is different from others. Perhaps like Aaron, I was given instruction from God on how to help create a light so that others may see their own ways to Judaism. That, I suppose, is my hope in all of this.

While it is a scary notion that I am distinct or different, it is also an awesome responsibility - one that I try never to take lightly.

What is the purpose?
I think the purpose of raising something up - whether it be time or space or people - is to really understand the sacredness and potential of God's presence in everything and everyone.
What does it accomplish?
I believe it accomplishes our ability to better understand how to make something sacred, how to treat something as holy, how to understand the specialness and diversity that is present in this world.
Is it neccessary?
Yes, I believe that committing ourselves to service, whether it be as a rabbi or as a Jew or as a volunteer or as a human being, is the most sacred task that any of us can undertake - for it brings about holiness and God's presence in our world.
And distinction is neccessary for us to remember that there are some things in life that are not just mundane or normal. Becoming a Bat Mitzvah, engaging with others, dedicating ourselves to service for God and the Jewish people, moments of working towards good in this world. These are most sacred and worthy of our distinction.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The gift of Torah in our lives

Tonight begins the Jewish holiday of Shavuot (Festival of weeks) - one of the three major pilgrimage festivals celebrated throughout the Jewish year. Shavuot celebrates the the receiving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai which is the culmination of the 50 days between Peasach (when we were freed from Egypt) and the journey through the wilderness to reach the foot of the mountain (redemption).

For some reason, not too many people concern themselves with Shavuot. Jews, and non-Jews, know a whole heck of a lot about Hanukkah (which is pretty minor in our religious year) and a good deal about the High Holidays and Passover and Sukkot. So why does Shavuot get overlooked? Along with Passover and Sukkot, Shavuot is a MAJOR festival. It has it's own themes, it's own nusach (Jewish musical mode), even it's own customs and traditions.

Customs and traditions can be very powerful. No matter what the Jewish holiday (major, minor, or somewhere in between), we can always embrace customs and ritual - even if they are different from "traditional" religious customs. These new rituals and traditions that you create are just as valid as the traditional ones. For example, many people eat dairy on Shavuot. If you are lactose intolerant, this is probably NOT a custom you will want to embrace! But you could always choose to make lactose free treats and enjoy the spirit of the chag in your own way. Many synagogues celebrate Confirmation on Erev Shavuot, but other synagogues wait until that Erev Shabbat to celebrate with their teens as they affirm their beliefs in Judaism. Both are valid and wonderful expressions of commitment to Judaism.

This morning I was thinking about the gift of Torah. In the last three years, I have been in three different places for Shavuot - Louisville, KY; Cincinnati, OH; and Tacoma, WA. Next year, I'll be in Forest Hills, NY. And each place has held special memories and customs of this holiday, for me. In Louisville, at my student pulpit, I was able to engage in a city-wide Tikkun Leil Shavuot (all night study session) with Orthodox and Reform Jews - our theme was the number 7, so I presented on shiva (7 days of mourning) at 12:30 at night. Last year, in Cincinnati, I went to two different study sessions. One was at a Reform synagogue and one was at an Orthodox synagogue. We studied well in to the night, and then two or three of my friends and I went out for breakfast at 4am and continued talking about Torah. I didn't go to sleep that night - it was all too energizing.

This year, my good friend Rabbi Phyllis Sommer challenged all those on Twitter to "tweet" Torah to the top. This means that the more people that put a tag on the word "Torah" (#torah), the more likely that it will be picked up as a topic that is a popular trend amongst all subjects being tweeted. It may sound sort of silly, but the truth is, it has been REALLY meaningful for me. All day long I get to prepare myself for Shavuot through engaging with words of Torah. I get to connect with my colleagues and friends from around the world and see what their thoughts are on Torah. And I feel part of a greater community - a virtual kehillah kedosha of those ready to stand at Sinai, before God, and really receive the glorious gift that has sustained the Jewish people - the Torah.

In our modern lives, with technology abounding at our fingertips, when we are constantly moving and doing and changing, it is so nice to know that wherever we are, whatever our customs are, or how we choose to celebrate, there is one thing that is constant: the Torah is there for us, ready to be received.

Chag Sameach

Friday, May 14, 2010

Pre-Shabbos Prep

Many people like to spend their Friday afternoons "preparing for Shabbat." That can mean everything from cooking, cleaning, preparing one's self and space physically or even emotionally. My favorite way to prepare for Shabbat, on a Friday afternoon, involves two things: mental preparation and relaxation. I know that the latter seems silly. You may be saying, "Why relax if you're about to enter into Shabbat when we elevate time and give ourselves space to stop working (in whatever way is most meaningful for you)?"

As someone who works on Shabbat, and doesn't always give myself the time to relax as I should, I find that the few moments of relaxation before Shabbat help remind me of how I want to enter in to Shabbat - hopefully to have it help carry me through that time. I like to go for a walk or engage in other kinds of physical activity, listen to music or catch up on some bad television, or even call friends and family and connect with them. Whatever I do, I make sure that it is time for me and that it is enjoyable.

The other great thing that I like to do is reflect. Whether it be reflecting on the past week, thinking about the upcoming Chagim (holidays) or the Parsha Hashavua (the weekly Torah portion) or great philosophical/theological questions that I wrestle with.

Earlier this week, after momentarily discussing some theological musings with a friend, I stumbled upon a series of questions that I had listed in a former blog from several years ago. I think I'd like to spend this pre-Shabbat time focusing on just a few of those questions:

1) What does it mean to be human?
2) What do you believe about human nature and issues of good vs. evil?
3) How does one provide meaning to human existence in a Jewish way? Why be Jewish at all?

These are big ones, I know. But perhaps if we give ourselves the space and the time to breathe, and to reflect on these questions in our own lives, the spirit of Shabbat will be that much more meaningful and that much sweeter, in our own lives.
Happy thinking and Shabbat Shalom!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

VEDEM (Czech: "I lead")

Last night, I went to the Music of Remembrance world premiere of a work entitled, "Vedem". The Music of Remembrance series in Seattle, WA puts on two shows a year (fall and spring) and commemorates the lives lost during the Holocaust through musical and artistic expression. This is it's 12th season. Last night's performance included a piece called "In Memoriam", Pavel Haas's String Quartet No. 3 and the world premiere of Vedem. Vedem had 15 smaller pieces and featured piano, cello, viola, violin, clarinet, mezzo-soprano, tenor and (most importantly) the North West Boy Choir. The boys choir did an unbelievable job telling the haunting and chilling tales of these young men who were living in Home 1 in Terezin. It was sad, scary, chilling, and yet - somehow - uplifting.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the evening was the special guests who were present. Of all 100 boys who lived in Home 1 and contributed weekly to this literary journal, filled with poems and prose of their feelings/observations/doubts/fears/desires, only 15 are known to have survived the Holocaust. Of those 15, only 6 are still living today and four of them were able to be with us in the concert hall that evening. Those survivors were able to witness the world premiere of the artistic interpretation of their own personal stories and memories.

The survivors spoke of what a great honor it was to the memory of those whose lives were cut too short - some of whom were literary geniuses, and what a great loss to this world their death had been. They spoke of being honored by this piece, but it was all of us who were truly honored to be there - to honor their courage, their fortitude, and their human will to continue fighting for bits and pieces of humanity and normalcy in an inhuman time and place. It was truly, a magical evening of remembering.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Mother's Day (and a mitzvah!)

I don't know about you, but I find Mother's Day to be the hardest day for which to buy that perfect present. Perhaps it's because it falls, every year, right in between my brother and father's birthdays, so I'm all shopped out. Or maybe it's just that it's hard to come up with unique, significant ways (each year) to tell your mother how very special she is to you. In thinking about what I wanted to get my mother this year, I thought a lot about who she is and what she's given me. My mother is one of the wisest, most compassionate, insightful human beings I have ever met - okay, maybe I'm a little biased. More than that, she's instilled in me a deep commitment to love deeply and act compassionately and justly in this world - to help others individually and collectively through our own gifts of time, talent, and privilege. (Yes, mom, I gained ALL of that through you!)

Instead of buying another cookbook, or piece of jewelry, or even sending flowers, I made a donation, instead.
Jewish Women's International (JWI) is a phenomenal organization that is committed to promoting the well being of Jewish women through areas of leadership, social skills, and community training. One of the many projects they do is called the Mother's Day Flower Project.

It is estimated that over 30,000 women will spend Mother's Day in a battered women's shelter. The Project collects donations and then sends cards on your behalf to the recipient letting them know that through the donation made, thousands of women will be receiving Mother's Day bouquets and beauty products - women who might not ordinarily get recognition or gifts. To me, this was an easy mitzvah. I was able to give something to these women who have gone through unimaginable abuse, and help empower them to continue working towards recovery and healing - through a simple gift. And what better gift to honor my own mother with than an act of kindness, compassion, and love?

Sunday, May 2, 2010

ל"ג בעומר שמח - Joyous moments on Lag B'Omer

In Hebrew, every letter has a numerical value. The letter lamed = 30 and gimmel = 3. Thus the thirty third day of the Omer is called (L"G) Lag b'Omer. We know that Rabbi Akiva's disciples were plagued until, miraculously, on the 33rd day of the Omer, the plague ceased. During the first 33 days of the Omer, traditional Jews commemorate the death of those thousands of disciples by refraining from joyous celebrations, not shaving or cutting their hair, or engaging in any kind of overtly joyous behavior. On Lag B'Omer, however, we celebrate the end of that plague and rejoice.

A few years ago, a friend and I were looking at a wedding invitation and the friend turned to me, with disdain and remarked, "They're getting married on Lag B'Omer....ughh, that is SOOOOO Jewish!" I never really understood that. I understood, of course, the significance of Lag B'Omer being a moment in time during the counting of the Omer that is one of great joy, where weddings are permitted, men can cut their hair, and big bonfires are created to celebrate the LIGHT and joy of the holiday. What I didn't understand was her disdain. Why shouldn't a Jewish couple, who clearly adheres to Jewish beliefs, rejoice in this day, by marking it with their wedding? True, they are Reform Jews who don't consider themselves to be highly observant, but if that makes the day more special and meaningful for them, who am I to judge the importance of that tradition or ritual? I should only hope to be so lucky to be able to mark significant days in my life with other important external significant events, as well. It can often make tradition more meaningful and more beautiful. Instead, every Lag B'Omer I am reminded of this person's disdain for another couple's choice.

Today is a day of great celebration. Not only is it Lag B'Omer, it is also the day that many of my classmates and new colleagues are being invested as cantors and ordained as rabbis from the New York campus of Hebrew Union College. I can't begin to tell you how proud I am of each and every one of them. In some ways, the hard part is over and today is a day of rejoicing. But just like Lag B'Omer, we're not done counting yet and the journey continues onward. So, too, do my newest colleagues have a lifetime of learning, experience, and counting ahead of them. Each one of them is going to have great achievements, a few setbacks, and continue on their own journey to fulfill the sacred work of guiding the Jewish people. There will be so many moments that lift their hearts up and that help them remember why it is that they do what they do. There will be other moments of great difficulty and strife. But that's true of every journey. That's what makes the days count - really count. For today, I wish them each MAZEL TOV and I rejoice in the celebration of that journey with them. And how lucky that they get to celebrate on Lag B'omer - how very, VERY Jewish....indeed!

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Butterscotch candies and sacred memories

All day, yesterday, I felt as though my grandfather was with me. I woke up yesterday morning and realized that it has been 20 years since he died. 20 years...and I still remember it as though it were yesterday. We were living in France at the time, but were fortunate enough to fly back to New York, as a family, for his final few days and to be present for his funeral and for the period of shiva that followed. It was the first Jewish encounter that I ever, personally, had with death and dying. Even though I was just a little girl at the time, I remember so much of that week vividly.

As I was going through a pair of pants, later on, I found a $20 bill tucked away, as if it were waiting for me to find it. I wrote it off as coincidence - a lucky start to my day, I guess. Then, later, I had a cousin on my grandfather's side call me, and we shared some great news together - I would be renting an apartment in Queens from these cousins. It seemed b'sheyrt (fate) that these cousins who were close to my grandfather would be sharing in this with me on the day of his yarzheit when we mark the anniversary of his death. Even though my day was going well, I had to admit that I wasn't feeling well at all. But I needed to help lead services last night, so I mustered up all my energy and did what rabbis do - lead services even when we're sick. At one point during the concluding prayers my throat was beginning to hurt and I reached down to find a throat lozenge, but instead ended up with a butterscoth candy in my hand. I smiled. These were the exact candies that my grandfather used to give to me and my brother when we were little, any time we visited him in his office. I opened it up, put it in my mouth, and memories of my very young years, with him, flooded back to me as we read the Mourner's Kaddish. I realized, in that moment, what a great gift memory can really be.

In Judaism, we value collective memories and individual memories as though they were sacred. And they are sacred. Jewish perspectives on death and dying are, to me, some of the most humane and compassionate practices that we have. The liturgy of a funeral service is meant to provide two essential functions: to celebrate and commemorate the passing of a life (and remember everything that life encompassed) and to help those who are grieving say goodbye to their loved one. Within traditional Jewish practice, those who are grieving are forbidden to do most normal activities during the period of learning of the death until burial, and then are given seven days (shiva) to really grieve the loss of their loved one. Thirty days mark another significant period of mourning, followed by 11 more months of grieving until finally, after a year, one is realeased from all Jewish mourning obligations for their loved one. However, year after year, we mark the anniversary of that loved one's death by saying Kaddish for them. To me, this understanding of human nature is what makes Judaism so beautiful. Jewish customs of mourning recognize that when a loved one dies, it takes time, different amounts of time to really deal with that grief. The most significant grief happens immediately, and it eases as time goes on - but it never goes away. And the rituals within Jewish mourning recognize that every year, we bring ourselves back to those memories - of the lives of our loved ones, of their passing, of our own grief. Judaism is truly remarkable, like that.

On my grandfather's yarzheit, I always think of two things: 1) How much I wish I had known him better or had more time with him 2) How grateful I am that I've had a lifetime of such wonderful memories with my grandmother. Through all of my interactions with her throughout the years, she has helped me to understand their lives, the collective memories of our family, and who he was - this grandfather who left me when I was just a little girl.

Perhaps my grandfather was not WITH me yesterday, but his memories certainly were. And they will always continue to be with me.

Zichron Livracha - May his memory ALWAYS be for a blessing.