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Rabbi's Corner

 


SENIOR RABBI
PAULA MARCUS

Rabbi Paula sees Jewish
practice as an ongoing, joyous celebration of God and ourselves.



pmarcus@tbeaptos.org
 

November 2019

Thanks-Giving, A Jewish Practice

One of my favorite sayings, which I have posted on the inside of my office door, is “To Kvetch is Human, To Act is Divine.”

It’s so easy to kvetch and Judaism has an answer for this tendency. The practice is called, hakarat hatov, acknowledging/recognizing the good. Just like any practice, it may not be our natural inclination, and so it takes practice.

Imagine how different our interactions and relationships would be if each time we begin a new conversation, email or social media exchange, we would start with appreciation for the person on the other end of the communication. While saying thank you and acknowledging the good in the other might not be easy at first, it can become contagious. If just a few people in our family, friend group or workplace shift the tone of interactions, it can lead to others engaging in this behavior as well.

Hakarat hatov can also be an expression of our own limitations, a recognition that I am not completely in control—that I depend upon others. This can lead to a sense of humility and increased appreciation for how we are connected to others.

Jewish people are literally rooted in the concept of gratitude. We are called Jews, ידה/or Yehudim, after the tribe of Yehuda, whose Hebrew linguistic root is yadah which means to give thanks. This means that it is literally in the DNA of all Jews (Yehudim) to recognize the good that someone does for us and give thanks for it.

Hakarat hatov can be more difficult when we are facing challenges. And, it may be one way we can help lift our spirits. As we move toward Thanksgiving, may we work to incorporate this Jewish practice into our lives.

October 2019

“From the four corners of the world—red, black, white and green. Red is the blood, black is the innards and green for the body. Why from the four corners of the earth? So that if one comes from the east to the west and arrives at the end of his life as he nears departing from the world, it will not be said to them, "This land is not the dust of your body, it's of mine. Go back to where you were created." Rather, every place that a person walks, from there she was created and from there she will return.”
                                                             Midrash Yalkut Shimoni 1:13

Friday, Lily Howe took the 40 minute bus ride from her home in the Bronx to our home in White Plains. She worked hard cleaning our home, and most weeks, she babysat for my brothers while my parents and I went to Shabbat evening services. I always liked it when she stayed for dinner because she would make us fried chicken. I knew very little about Lily’s life. My grandfather called her “the colored girl.” That was the way most people I knew spoke about “the help.” I remember asking him once, what color he thought she was… Lily was kind to us, and she was also firm. She expected us to behave ourselves and for the most part, we did.

I hadn’t thought much about Lily over the years. But after my trip to Alabama and reading a number of books about racism I have started thinking about my place in the dynamic of white privilege and the messages I’ve been raised with.

Over the span of three days, I spent a few hours on the phone with my brothers and my mom, asking them questions about Lily. My youngest brother told me that he remembered when Lily’s oldest daughter was murdered. Her daughter was about 19 years old and she was stabbed to death. My brother told me he saw Lily crying about it with my mom. I didn’t remember this at all. I really know almost nothing about the conditions this woman lived in and she worked for us over the span of 15 years.

Another insight I’ve had recently, is that we always called Lily by her first name. Our other babysitter, a white woman, we always called Miss Campbell.

I grew up in the late 60’s and 70’s, after the Civil Rights Movement. I learned about Dr King and the Freedom Riders, but there’s so much I didn’t learn. As the midrash above teaches us, we are all created from the same earth. We also know that each and every one is created in the image of the Divine, with sacred worth. How can we listen to the voices of people of color who are sharing their stories now, and what are the stories and memories we might explore about how race has played out in our lives? During this new year, in the season of our return, how can we become more aware? I’ve been reading, watching and working hard to listen. I know that many of you have been doing this for years. We can each start from where we are and commit to staying with the process of understanding while we work for the changes that would bring our true values of equality and justice to bear.

Please visit our website for a list of books and movies on this subject. Reverend Deborah Johnson and I will be facilitating book groups after the new secular year. Our congregations will be reading the book, White Fragility, by Robin DiAngelo. I invite you to engage in this process together.

September 2019

Friday night August 30, is Rosh Chodesh, (new moon) of the month of Elul. In Aramaic (the language spoken by Jews living at the time that the months were given names during the sixth century BCE) the word "Elul" means "search." Elul is a time to search our hearts.

The tradition is to blow the shofar every morning (except on Shabbat) from Rosh Hodesh Elul until the day before Rosh HaShanah. The sounding of the Shofar is a wakeup call to search our souls and our hearts and ask how we can find our way back to equanimity and forgiveness.

In Eastern Europe, Elul came when the plums were purple and ripe and the pears were ready for harvesting. Eastern European Jews called Elul the time of the "Flaumen un die Beren" (the plums and pears). In Yiddish these two words have other meanings as well. The word "flaumen” means flames and the word “beren" means to burn. So Elul can be experienced as a time to wake up and search our hearts, with passionate and burning intensity.

This poem was written by Rabbi Patti Haskell. I invite you to sit with it and see what you discover during this time of spiritual preparation.

Elul.
Late summer month
Leading into the holiest of days.
Time of reflection
Time of return
Time of repentance.
An invitation to open your heart
And feel into your own depths
Searching for sweetness
Searching for tenderness.
Searching for reunion
With your Glorious Creator
Who loves your very being.
Open and be.

June 2019

Mishkan HaNefesh—Sanctuary of the Soul

Thank you to all who have purchased the new Mishkan HaNefesh, high holiday prayer books, and donated to the 60 for 60 campaign so that we have been able to purchase some for our congregation. If you haven’t bought one yet, we have them for sale. I encourage you to buy these books so that you can take them home and spend time with the new, inspiring prayers and readings as a way of preparing for the New Year. This set of machzorim (High Holiday prayer books) was published by the Central Conference of American Rabbis in 2015. I am excited about joining the hundreds of other Reform synagogues who have been celebrating the holidays with prayers, songs, and poetry that will guide us through the Days of Awe.

These holidays can inspire us on our communal and our personal spiritual journey. When we come together as a community, we also have our own individual experience. Mishkan HaNefesh can engage us on both of these levels. As with our Shabbat evening siddur, Mishkan Tefillah, these new machzorim include meditations for personal reflection, as well as historical and philosophical commentary on the bottom of each page. I encourage you to explore the richness of these additions to our liturgy.

Another reason I like these books is the diverse images of God and inclusive approach to theological ideas. We find some texts that can help us navigate traditional themes and metaphors that may feel outdated or uncomfortable, engaging us in the ongoing question of what it means to be a Jew in our contemporary world.

I can’t list all of the reasons why I am excited about using Mishkan HaNefesh. One I will share is that it’s LGBTQ+ inclusive. Instead of references to “bride and groom” we have mention of “couple,” there's a new non-binary pronoun, pieces by gay and lesbian poets are included, and those who died in the Holocaust because of their sexual orientation are honored.

In the words of Rabbi April Peters, who designed teaching tools for Mishkan HaNefesh, “The layout, the translations, and the additional readings all reflect a desire to create a text that all worshipers can find a place for themselves within. Through their direct encounter with the new text, they(sic) will come to feel a level of ownership that will allow them to participate actively and meaningfully in their High Holy Days worship, no matter their different beliefs or approaches to Judaism.”

May 2019

Our tradition offers us wonderful learning opportunities between the two pilgrimage festivals of Passover and Shavuot. During these seven weeks, there is a practice of counting the days between these two holidays, with the goal of reminding us of the link between Passover, which commemorates the Exodus, and Shavu'ot, which commemorates the giving of the Torah. The counting helps us understand that the redemption from slavery was not complete until we received the Torah. This spiritual practice links the seven lower emanations of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life with our own attributes. It is an internal, individual learning process that helps us understand our own individual path toward revelation. If you would like to learn more about this practice, you can follow this link: https://bit.ly/2WX8UjS.

A more communal learning opportunity is to study Pirke Avot, The Chapters of our Ancestors, a tractate of the Mishnah devoted to ethical guidance. Rashi (11th century France), taught that this tractate got its name because it contains the “sayings” of the first “fathers” of Judaism. The first chapter of this text connects the giving of the Torah at Sinai, with the generations of leaders and teachers. We find practical teachings about how to study, be part of a community and stay in alignment with core Jewish values.

One of my favorite teachings in this collection is about how we approach our relationship with Torah. In chapter 5, teaching number 22, we read that Ben Bag Bag—a rabbinic sage and student of Rabbi Hillel the Elder—used to say, “Turn it (Torah), and turn it, for everything is in it. Reflect on it and grow old and gray with it. Don’t turn from it, for nothing is better than it.”

Between Passover and Shavuot, it has been our practice to study Pirke Avot for our Thursday Lunch and Learn sessions. This year I am very excited about a new commentary on Pirke Avot, titled Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary by Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz. Rabbi Shmuly draws from a wide variety of classic and modern commentaries and I am looking forward to sharing these insights as we continue in our efforts to heal ourselves and our world.

April 2019

I’m writing from Europe, where I’ve been traveling with my family.

Aryeh’s two sons planned this trip months ago and their primary “goal” revolves around soccer—football—as it’s called here.

Our first stop was Amsterdam. Since

I was young and read her diary, I have wanted to visit the house where Anne Frank and her family were hidden. In our religious school production of the play, at 14 years old, I was Anne. I spoke her words and did my best as a kid, to imagine what it must have felt like to be confined in such a small space with her family and four others. Walking

through the rooms she walked in and seeing the sights she saw, I was filled with sadness for the suffering she and others endured during World War II. And I was amazed by the words she conjured to express her hope for the world.

While I am traveling in Europe, Rabbi Shifra is traveling in Israel with eight other members of our congregation in solidarity with Women of the Wall as they mark their 30th Anniversary. Women of the Wall (WOW) gathers every Rosh Chodesh (New Moon) at the Kotel (Western Wall). Their main purpose is to attain the social and legal recognition for women to wear tallit, pray out loud and read from the Torah

on the women’s side of the Kotel. But the bigger issue is that the ultra-orthodox minority monopolize the holy

sites and dictate how all Israeli citizens can be married and buried. For their 30th Anniversary, WOW’s goal was to gather supporters from all over the world as an expression of how important it is for the Kotel to be a place that all Jews can feel at home. Almost 10,000 ultra-orthodox school children were bussed in to fill the plaza of the western wall and prevent the group from entering. Rabbi Shifra said “most of these extremists were children and many of them had a very menacing mob mentality. They spat at us and shoved us and ridiculed us as we attempted to enter the women’s section to pray. Many of the people who came to be there with us gave up and turned back. However I did manage to make my way to the center of the Women of the Wall Rosh Chodesh service and it was a very moving experience for me. As I was pressed against a group of teenage girls who were there to block me, we respectfully exchanged our points of view in the eye of the storm as it were.” Despite harassment and even death threats, Women of the Wall continue their work, in conjunction with the URJ’s Israel Religious Action Center. We must never give up hope that Israel will become the example of religious pluralism and inclusion that it was intended to be.

Read Women of the Wall: A Holy Mess in The Jerusalem Post at https://bit.ly/2Ct3Mfn.
 

On February 11, 2019, Rabbi Paula was honored with the Tony Hill Award at the 35th Annual Martin Luther King Convocation. She gave the following speech.

I want to thank so many people for this great honor. Those of you who nominated me and wrote letters of support, my Temple Beth El family. And all of you who have been partners in stirring up our shared public life in this amazing community. My family, including my amazingly supportive husband, my loving son, my loyal brother and his wonderful partner who are here this evening.

Tonight, we are honoring the memory of two men who stood up and spoke out whenever they saw injustice, insensitivity, inequality. Two men with the vision to keep going, even when others might have lost hope. Two peaceful warriors. Both of these men faced adversity. And both of them taught that love, not hate, is the way forward. Do we really know how remarkable this is? Because honestly, these days I’m finding it hard. Hard to stay in the struggle and not become enraged at what we are seeing.

It doesn’t help when my inbox is filled with political emails such as:

“Did you hear what Mitch McConnel just said?”

“Demand Governor Resign Over Blackface Photo”

“Condemn Rep. Steve King for White Supremacist Remarks”

Or “they want to be able to LYNCH LGBTQ people”

I know that these messages are sent by organizations that are working to mobilize us. They stir up our outrage. And, we can’t just get angry. Just like Tony Hill and Dr. King, we organize. We reach out to the people we work with and we say, what are we gonna do about this? We sit together, in sanctuaries, at cafes, sometimes in jail cells, and we share our stories our dreams and our plans to create change.

And we remember the legacies of hope and love and courage we hold so dear.

This is one reason I chose COPA* as the recipient of the $500.00 gift. I have learned so much about effective strategy, the importance of organizing across differences of faith, race, and economic class. And the preciousness of our stories, our understanding of why we need to work together. The patience it takes to stay in, especially when we don’t always agree about everything.

Last year, my husband and I traveled in Vietnam. Talk about a humbling experience, we were received by open hearted, generous people. I like to say it would have been easier if we’d gone when Obama was president, at least we could have said we learned something from that tragic war.

We spent some time at the Temple where the Vietnamese, Buddhist spiritual leader and teacher, Tich Nat Han, became a monk. We walked around the beautiful lake, sat in the meditation hall and spoke with some of the monks and nuns. This Temple is where Thich Nhat Hanh is now living his last days or weeks before he dies. This man, who protested against the war in Vietnam and taught that “Peace is in Every Step”. As we honor and remember Tony Hill and Dr King this evening, I want to close with these words from Tich Nat Han.

“If you see someone who is trying to shoot, to destroy, you have to do your best in order to prevent him or her to do so. You must. But you must do it out of your compassion, of your willingness to protect, and not out of anger. That is the key.

*COPA-Communities Organized for Relational Power in Action, local Industrial Areas Foundation affiliate.

 

Sat, December 14 2019 16 Kislev 5780