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Dayeinu!

Some critically important Torah from my colleague Rabbi Sandra Cohen, humbly filtered through my own interpretive lens, for this unique season of liberation: A new understanding for “Dayeinu!”

Let’s shift our focus from
“enough for us”
to…
“WE ARE ENOUGH.”

This exclamation from the Hagaddah (the text for the seder, the Passover ritual meal) is simply a compounding of the word “enough” with the suffix “us.” It is meant to serve as a full sentence.

This word is often meant in modern usage–ironically–as a mercy plea, a cry for a reprieve. We might employ it to assert when our capacity to tolerate unpleasant change or misfortune has reached its limit (“This has been enough, i.e. too much, for us. We’ve endured plenty already–please stop; no more hardships!”). But the original intent of this proclamation in the Hagaddah is quite the opposite:

Traditionally, “Dayeinu!” is a shout of gratitude. It affirms that “it would have been enough for us“: We could have been satisfied if the Holy One only did x, y, or z for our ancestors or for us–and nothing more, not bestowing the additional acts of kindness, protection, deliverance, and blessing upon us that we also celebrate as part of our journey. It emphasizes complete appreciation for each and every good thing we have received. Whatever would have come our way, we would have humbly accepted as sufficient and as cause for thanks. Ideally, this outlook then also prepares us for taking the same approach in the future, cultivating an openness to grace–that sense that any goodness we enjoy is a gift, more than anything we deserve or have merited.

Grammatical interlude #1: In this formulation, the subject of this very short sentence–the implied “it”–is each good thing, whatever we are attributing to the Divine source of goodness. That thing would have been enough. And “we,” as passive recipients, are the object (with the implied preposition “for”), expressed, in English, with the word us. That blessing would have been “enough for us.”

This outlook is a very important one, indeed–though sometimes bordering on ludicrous when considering where “blessing x” would have left us stuck and finished if not followed by “deliverance y” (how grateful could we really have been for witnessing the splitting of the sea but not making our way through the opening in the waters?!). Perhaps embedded in the challenge of affirming its meaning in such extreme situations is an opportunity for engaging in a spiritual mindfulness exercise: we can discipline ourselves to narrow our focus upon the one blessing before us, seeing and embracing each encounter with goodness as its own world of meaning (seeing the proverbial tree in isolation and not worrying about the rest of the forest)–and being fully present for it; we can leave or cast aside the “noise” of the rest of the forest, all the other factors and considerations that tell us–often with good reason when we’re approaching our reality primarily with our rational minds–how there’s more to the story, why we need to keep moving forward, that we can’t be satisfied with “protection a” and must push on in order to achieve “kindness b.” Instead, being present for one experience of goodness, we can enjoy a taste of a reality in which we are truly “happy with our lot.”

The above reflection on what Dayeinu can mean–both as we look back onto our collective historical memory and also bring the wisdom of those experiences into our own lives–suggests a lot of hard work. Sometimes, we just don’t have the strength to idealize every moment and find happiness or be content with the reality that life is throwing at us. Sometimes, we find ourselves grumbling dayeinu with its other meaning that was mentioned above–as a way of saying we’ve had enough and wish for all of this hardship to go away.

The idea that each moment of blessing exists in a solitary state–as a discrete event that becomes its own world–can resonate more deeply for us today: The experience of being solitary, discrete, or separate is one we are actually embodying–we are living it out with our entire selves. Even if we are experiencing lockdown with a family unit that contains multiple members, each unit as a whole is blocked off physically from the rest of the world and is immersed in its own, separate reality–apart from the one unfolding in the house next door or in the apartment down the hall or wherever else others are “socially distancing.” (The solitary experience is all the more potent for those who are literally living alone.) Each household, regardless of its size, is its own single tree, a solitary blessing that stands apart from all others.

This current predicament–living in isolation from friends and relatives, divorced from familiar and rejuvenating social interactions or from the (old) routines of daily life or from the freedom to move about–challenges our openness to spiritual or emotional contentment. We are in unfamiliar territory and need to learn new ways of managing reality–new ways of coping with the unknown, with the stress of daily life. Many of us have had to radically re-envision how we do our jobs–if we still have a job. Many of us are worrying about our finances; others of us are worrying about loved ones whom we can’t visit in person, sometimes spending lots of time checking in remotely on those we care about. Parents feel anxiety about how to help their children flourish under new–and often inadequate or trying–conditions for learning and for enjoying a feeling of accomplishment; they may be managing intensified sibling squabbles as the duration of “stay-at-home” increases. Couples may be encountering new fissures in their relationship. Many of us are contending with extreme loneliness. (And all these struggles presume that everyone is in good physical health; the direct impact of the virus in terms of debilitating illness and death–and the fear that sickness often brings–is its own horror, intensified even more by isolation and separation, especially when mourners are unable to grieve in familiar ways.) Many of us are contending with an increased lack of motivation or with a stultifying boredom–and subsequent annoyance about our decline in productivity or frustration for not tackling those in-house projects we initially thought we’d dive into when this new reality began.

All the while, a thousand messages are blaring through news and social media about the “best way” to maximize this “exciting opportunity” of shelter-in-place. Yet, many of us find the feeling of confinement zapping our inspiration or motivation–and then find us judging ourselves for not “keeping up,” for not handling all of this better. The forest noise about all the “shoulds” can be very much like the noise that prevents us from enjoying a solitary moment of grateful celebration from our sacred narrative. Just as we might scoff at Dayeinu!–“how could we be happy if we were brought to the foot of Mt. Sinai but were not given the Torah?!”–and insist that we need to receive more blessing and deliverance, so too, we might place increasingly more unrealistic pressure on ourselves as we struggle with our new reality, insisting that we need to handle this challenge better, need to do more, accomplish more.

And so we come to a new and very relevant meaning for Dayeinu! at this moment: Rabbi Sandra Cohen suggests that as so many of us are struggling–feeling the weight of self-judgment, the oppressive sense of powerlessness, the pain of various experiences of loss–now is the time for a new understanding of Dayeinu!. Rabbi Cohen encourages us to invite Divine kindness and blessing into our own lives by affirming this eternal truth: “We are enough!”

Perhaps we can merge these two experiences of separateness–the one applied to each individual event in Daeyinu! and the one applied to us in our current separateness. Perhaps we can imagine our living unit (our individual self or our discrete family) as representing one specific act of kindness or deliverance that our ancestors enjoyed. And then we can apply the same challenge from the song in the Hagaddah to ourselves: Just as we imagine being able to find complete joy and contentment with absolute focus on just one specific special moment from our people’s formative narrative, may we also allow Divine kindness and love to be manifest–and may we see it–in the “event” that is us. May we then see our own selves as enough and as a cause for joy and gratitude to the Source of goodness and blessing who has brought us into being–specifically, separately, uniquely.

Grammatical interlude #2: In the traditional understanding of Dayeinu!, we saw how each good thing is an implied “it,” and that “it” would have been “enough for us.” In that sentence, “we” were rendered as passive objects, recipients of Divine grace. Our challenge now is to shift our focus–actually, to shift the focus onto us–to turn ourselves into the subjects of the proclamation. We do this not to emphasize our agency and fool us into expecting too much of ourselves as active agents who have immense control over our reality; part of this message of acceptance is that we don’t have such control–and what we do with this “turn of phrase” is redeem ourselves from the oppression of that overbearing myth of agency. We turn ourselves into subjects of the sentence not to empower us to do more, not to empower us to do anything. We do so in order to bestow upon us the predicate “are enough,” to affirm for ourselves the recognition we all deserve and that God has already granted us.

By engaging in this shift in focus, we once again become passive recipients–but not of some added, external act of Divine goodness that we celebrate as having affected our lives for the better. This time, we enable ourselves to receive the loving, Divine affirmation of acceptance, the confirmation of being abundantly adequate. This message perpetually calls. We need nothing more from the Divine bestower of blessing. It alone can lovingly envelop us, protect us, carry us, deliver us–if we let go of the illusion of control. When we do, this very counter-cultural message can enter fully into our reality and reverberate–again–with the redemptive refrain:

Dayeinu! We are enough.

Woman Up!

(The content of this post was originally published on October 9, 2019–very soon after the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. I accidentally published my thoughts as a separate page on the blog, not as a post in the general feed. This posting corrects that error.)

This past Sunday in Denver, I had the good fortune of winding up at a red light behind the vehicle that bears this “vanity” plate: WOMANUP

What an inspiring message of consolation and hope, especially in the midst of that dreary weekend—the effects of which, I’m sure, still feel like they’re weighing heavily on many of us. This little message of female empowerment was a ray of sunlight poking through the clouds of despair. I almost immediately thought of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and the thousands of female victims of misogyny and assault who are gaining the strength to end their silence and courageously speak their chilling truth.

I thought about the horrible culture of machismo that perpetuates demeaning gender stereotypes (which would be ridiculous if they weren’t so disgusting) through phrases like “man up,” and the opportunity—and perhaps responsibility—of turning that culture on its head; not to “reverse the power dynamic” (only a foolish paranoia guides the fear-mongering claims that women are in or seek to be in a position to threaten men or their safety, ruin their lives, or perpetrate gender-based discrimination or injustice), but to set it right.

I thought about the upward movement of women in our society—from positions of limited opportunity, from feeling put down, from being literally or figuratively mounted, subjugated, smothered, objectified, silenced, disempowered. And I thought about the refusal on the part of so many men in power to recognize this reality, their (our) complicity in fostering it and perpetuating it, and the need for those of us who have known privilege and power to step back and listen, to allow women to rise up to their rightful place as human equals and tell their stories. I thought about the ongoing need for women to rise up from those low, dark places and I also thought about how that rising is indeed happening.

And I thought about all the ways men can learn from women’s process of rising up, how we all, as feminists (regardless of our gender identity), can incorporate models of female empowerment, leadership, and self-actualizing—and can also embrace aspects of the feminine—all for the betterment of humanity (which, after all, possesses a Divinity that is beyond any single gender: “Masculine and feminine God created them.”)

Of course, there was also the fascinating fact that this message of hope and empowerment was literally framed by a celebration of someone’s connection to West Point. I needed to shift lanes after the stop and saw that the driver was indeed a woman. No way to know, of course, if she (or another woman in her family) is the West Point alum or if being a proud, empowered woman and having someone in the family who attended USMA are separate (yet complementary) parts of her reality. Regardless, it felt to me even more encouraging that this message might be emerging in some way from within an experience of an institution that signifies power in so many traditional or stereotypical manifestations—which are so easily associated with toxic masculinity.

As women continue to break through barriers in the military and in so many other fields, may they continue to demonstrate a wider range of what it means to rise up, to claim and hold power, and to wield it for noble and compassionate ends for a greater good—and may we of all gender identities learn and grow from their modeling. Thank you to the woman who chose to put this message on her Colorado license plate. I am also grateful to the indeterminate “hand” that placed me in the right place at the right time—behind this woman’s car on that particular Sunday: so that I might receive the blessing of hope that this empowering message offered at a moment of despair, so that I might embrace the charge—and spread it, too—to “woman up!”

Politics and Nuance in Israel 

“Politics and Nuance in Israel”

American and Israeli students are learning how to refrain from jumping to quick conclusions and to appreciate the political leaders of the past and present.
By Rick Brody 
 
On Monday, we visited the Ehad Ha’am School in Petach Tikvah, where our students interacted with Israeli peers. I had the chance to sit in on some of the classroom activities they engaged in and witnessed a subtle exchange that the students probably didn’t notice. In one exercise, each student needed to choose from a pile of pictures and symbols to identify something (or someone) that captures their sense of identity, someone with whom they feel a connection, and someone (or something) that makes them uncomfortable or that bothers them. A picture of David Ben Gurion was a common choice, but one time for a very uncommon designation. An Israeli girl said that Ben Gurion is someone who bothers her because he established the Israeli left wing and she considers herself right-wing. The immediate reaction of the teacher (who, I learned later, is a history teacher) was fascinating.

As one might imagine, Ben Gurion remains sacrosanct for many Israelis. For some, criticizing him might engender anger or defensiveness. On the other hand, if Israel is to be the robust democracy and free society that it aspires to be—and that surely Ben Gurion desired—perhaps current Israeli educators would want to encourage students to look critically at the country’s “sacred cows” and speak freely about them in ways that go beyond superficial hagiography. Coming from Barrack, where we emphasize our pluralism not only in religious belief and practice but also in intellectual and ideological interpretation of history and politics, I was very curious about how the teacher would respond. 

The teacher’s firm yet nuanced reply was neither a celebration of the student’s choice nor a complete silencing. Rather, she told the student that at her age, she is not yet ready to make such a broad-sweeping dismissal of such an important historical figure. She told the student that it is very important to continue to read, learn, and talk about Ben Gurion, his policies, and his legacy, and that only after much more exploration would she be in a position to decide if she agrees with his political legacy or not. And that in the meantime, all Israelis have a responsibility to recognize the incomparable impact that Ben Gurion had on the entire State of Israel and its history, regardless of politics. The honoring of Ben Gurion is not a matter of right or left, she said, but simply part of being a grateful Israeli citizen and appreciating his fundamental role in founding the state. The student appeared to tacitly accept this constructive criticism, offering no response. At that point, I shared with the students that Americans take the same approach towards George Washington. He is the father of our country and we honor that, regardless of his specific policies. The teacher and students appeared to appreciate that comparison. I spoke afterwards with the school principal who was present for the incident, and she told me she felt the teacher handled it perfectly. 

The students had another opportunity to encounter questions of politics on Tuesday, when—thanks to a close personal friendship with Rabbi Marc Israel and Abby Frank, parents of 8th-grader Elianna Israel—the US Ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, met with our group. Ambassador Shapiro talked about his career, the specific roles he plays in his job, and taught the students about some important aspects of the US-Israel relationship, including some  controversial current issues such as negotiations with Iran and the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians. Ambassador Shapiro assured the students that President Obama, a close friend of his, is absolutely committed to a strong US-Israel relationship and a strong and secure Jewish State—and that differences between the Obama administration and that of Prime Minister Netanyahu are matters of policy, not of goals. This was another example of educating young people about the importance of recognizing the complexity of politics, refraining from drawing quick conclusions based on small bits of information, and honoring the official positions of leadership within our government regardless of particular policy disagreements with a given administration. More specifically, it was a chance for the students to learn about the deep connections between the governments of these two nations and appreciate what it means to be an ambassador. They all recognized the great honor that it was to have this special visit. 


Electronic Shackles: Redemption on Shabbat and Pesach 

Electronic Shackles:
Redemption on Shabbat and Pesach

by Rabbi Rick Brody

This cartoon showed up in my Facebook feed today:

2015-04-07 13.44.03

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not only is it hilarious, but it’s also very timely at this moment in the rhythm of the Jewish seasons. It reminds us of the ways we remain enslaved to technology and in need of the annual festival of liberation that comes each spring as well as a weekly reprieve from the distracting, overstimulating workweek.

The cartoon captures the value of having a regular day to unplug. The Rabbis described Shabbat (a day that has always been an opportunity to step out of our workday routines and away from our reliance on the engines of industry–and in more recent history for abstaining specifically from using electronic devices) as me’ein olam haba, a “taste of the world to come.”

While I don’t subscribe to a belief in the image portrayed in this cartoon for whatever might “come next” and am much more interested in promoting the idea of “olam haba” as a shift in consciousness, relationships, and civil order attainable in our lifetime, the idea still stands: If our experiences of eternity involve only those parts of reality that truly matter; and the various vessels of our own creation—which might both help and hinder our journey towards that encounter with eternity—are ultimately not actually part of that ultimate reality, then ought we not train ourselves to function happily and freely without them right now?

The Jewish approach to answering that question is a “six-7ths” compromise: We will engage these devices, tools, and vessels during the 6 days of creation but will abstain from them once a week as a taste of a different way of living. And—since Shabbat is not only a memory of the completion of Creation but also of the Exodus from Egypt—we will also find this abstaining to be liberating. How enslaved the poor folks in the cartoon have been—and will remain eternally–because of their inability to function without their electronic shackles.

Right now are the intermediate days of Pesach, chol hamo’ed, non-holy days sandwiched within sacred time. They are like sweet charoset (and a little bit of maror, a reminder of the bitterness of oppression) between two pieces of matzah, the humble, flat bread of our liberation that defines and bookends this holy time. As we enjoy their sweetness—ideally intimately connected to springtime!—may we find a good balance between using personal devices for redemptive purposes and seeing the larger prize of liberation that involves more than those instruments of communication, entertainment, and data acquisition. May we communicate directly with those in our midst; may we soak up the warming rays of sunshine; may we engage more than our thumbs to walk, run, and play in outdoor leisure; and may we move from being atomized, silent acquirers of information to interactive, conversant knowers of and participants in the real-time goodness of physical companionship and quality time with those we love.

I composed most of this reflection on a personal “handheld” electronic device, using my thumbs—as well as my eyes and cognitive faculties. I completed it on a “laptop” device, using a few other fingers. But now I’m going to live it by walking away from these external instruments and focusing on the most important device of all—my body as a whole, with its multiple faculties of emotional, cognitive, kinesthetic, and other ways of knowing and experiencing the blessed reality it inhabits—which will interact fully with my children and my environment, unshackled by electronic tools. Moadim l’simchah—may these be special seasonal days for joy!

Sweet Innocence, Passion, and Redemption: Hidden Meanings of Charoset

Sweet Innocence, Passion, and Redemption: Hidden Meanings of Charoset

by Rabbi Rick Brody

While the haggadah makes no actual mention of charoset, we learn about it in Mishnah, Pesachim 10:3 and the Rabbis offer a short elaboration in the Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 116a:

:רבי אלעזר בר’ צדוק אומר מצוה וכו’: מאי מצוה רבי לוי א זכ לתפוח ור’ יוחנן אומר זכר לטיט

“Rabbi Elazar ben Rabbi Tzadok says [charoset] is an obligation…” What is the reason that it is an obligation? Rabbi Levi says, “It’s a memory of the apple tree” and Rabbi Yonaton says, “It’s a memory of the mortar.

What apple tree?! The Gemara explains elsewhere:

Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 11b

 רב עוירא בשכר נשים צדקניות שהיו באותו הדור נגאלו ישראל ממצרים בשעה שהולכות לשאוב מים…  ומוליכות אצל בעליהן לשדה ומרחיצות אותן וסכות אותן ומאכילות אותן ומשקות אותן ונזקקות להן וכיון שמתעברות באות לבתיהם וכיון שמגיע זמן מולדיהן הולכות ויולדות בשדה תחת התפוח שנאמר (שיר השירים)  תחת התפוח עוררתיך

Rav Avira explained: In the merit of the righteous women that were in that generation, Israel was redeemed from Egypt. They would go to their husbands who were slaving in the field.  And they would wash them and anoint them and feed them and give them to drink and lie with them, and they became pregnant; and when the time came to give birth, they would go and give birth in the field under the apple tree [so that the Egyptians would not find them. (Rashi)] As it says, ‘Under the apple tree I have awakened you (Song of Songs 8:5).’

Questions:

Down among the reeds and rushes
A baby boy was found
His eyes as clear as centuries
His silky hair was brown

Never been lonely
Never been lied to
Never had to scuffle in fear
Nothing denied to
Born at the instant
The church bells chime
And the whole world whispering
Born at the right time

Me and my buddies we are traveling people
We like to go down to restaurant row
Spend those euro-dollars
All the way from Washington to Tokyo
I see them in the airport lounge
Upon their mother’s breast
They follow me with open eyes
Their uninvited guest

Never been lonely
Never been lied to
Never had to scuffle in fear
Nothing denied to
Born at the instant
The church bells chime
And the whole world whispering
Born at the right time

There’s too many people on the bus from the airport
Too many holes in the crust of the earth
The planet groans
Every time it registers another birth
But down among the reeds and rushes
A baby girl was found
Her eyes as clear as centuries
Her silky hair was brown

Never been lonely
Never been lied to
Never had to scuffle in fear
Nothing denied to
Born at the instant
The church bells chime
And the whole world whispering
Born at the right time

  • Rava’s questions: Talmud Bavli, Mas. Shabbat 31a

:אמר רבא:בשעה שמכניסין אדם לדין אומרים לו:

?נשאת ונתת באמונה”

?קבעת עתים לתורה

?עסקת בפו”ר

?צפית לישועה

?פלפלת בחכמה

“?הבנת דבר מתוך דבר

.ואפ”ה אי יראת ה’ היא אוצרו אין אי לא לא

Rava said: When they take a person to judgment, they ask him:

“Did you conduct your business affairs faithfully?

Did you set aside time to study Torah?

Did you involve yourself in procreation?

Did you look forward to salvation?

Did you debate wisely?

Were you able to infer one thing from another?”

And even so, if “the fear of God was his treasure” – yes, if not – no.

o   Asakta b’piryah v’rivyah (“did you engage in procreation?”) … tzipita lishuah (“did you anticipate redemption?”)

  • What is the relationship between these two questions?
  • Why are they next to each other?
  • How do they relate to the story of Israelite mothers in Egypt?
  • How do these teachings, the story of Egypt, and Paul Simon’s lyrics all relate to each other?
  • What does Paul Simon seem to be saying about the connection between babies born in Egpyt and babies being born in our world today?
  • What connections do you see between the ancient story and our world?
  • How can the eating of charoset bring all these ideas together?

Questions for Thanksgiving

Many might have sat down already to their meals on this holiday, but whether you choose to ponder or engage these questions as part of the experience at your Thanksgiving table or at a later time, here are some questions. Some are particular to American Jews and some are relevant to everyone in this great country of ours. These questions were developed by my seniors at the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy, the members of the Jewish Leadership Initiative. Our hope is that these questions lead to some stimulating discussion and can go beyond the simple “What are you thankful for?” query. Happy Thanksgiving.

1. Think back to the Pilgrims—who they were, why they came. As Jews living in America in the modern era, what do we have in common with the Pilgrims? Is America still the same haven for those seeking refuge from religious persecution and how do we look at it 240 years after the USA was founded?

2. There’s no Israeli holiday that recognizes the process of Aliyah (immigration to Israel). Why? Did the early Olim (immigrants) go through the same sort of journey as the American Pilgrims? How about modern day Olim from either the U.S. or Europe? How does their journey compare to that of the Pilgrims or of earlier Olim?

3. How did you get here? At some point, your ancestors (or you) lived in Europe, Israel, Africa, or somewhere else. Share their (your) story with the group. How does it impact you and how are you thankful this year for the lives and journeys of your family members?

4. Are you pilgrim? What journeys have you made—real or metaphorical—over the past year that have shaped who you are as a person? Have you completed the journey? Are you proud of what you have accomplished as a result of completing the journey? What’s next?

Remembering the Four who were Murdered in Jerusalem

Remembering the Four* who were Murdered in Jerusalem

by Rabbi Rick Brody

“…that senseless violence cease and that

we never again witness such inhumanity.”


This morning, we interrupted class at the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy for the following announcement:

Please excuse the interruption. This is Rabbi Rick. We are in shock and in grief. We awoke this morning to terrible news from Jerusalem. In a terrorist attack during shaharit at a synagogue in the neighborhood of Har Nof, two Palestinian intruders brutally murdered four Jewish men and wounded eight others, four seriously. Police killed the assailants.  

One victim was Moshe Twersky, who was the cousin of two Akiba-Barrack alumni. The other victims were Aryeh Kupinsky,  Avraham Shmuel Goldberg, and Kalman Zeev Levine. They are now martyrs, whose memory we will uphold as a blessing in the hopes and prayers that senseless violence cease and that we never again witness such inhumanity. We pray for their families who mourn, for the recovery of those who were injured, and for the peace and security of our brothers and sister in Israel and throughout the world.

Please rise for the El Malei Rachamim prayer, recited in memory of these four men. After the prayer, please proceed solemnly to your next period.

* It was only later in the day that we learned that Druze Israeli Police officer Zidan Sayif, 27, died of his wounds sustained during his valiant protection of the synagogue. We pray that his memory, too, be a blessing.

אֵל מָלֵא רַחֲמִים שׁוֹכֵן בַּמְּרוֹמִים, הַמְצֵא מְנוּחָה נְכוֹנָה עַל כַּנְפֵי הַשְּׁכִינָה, בְּמַעֲלוֹת קְדוֹשִׁים וטְהוֹרִים כְּזוֹהַר הָרָקִיע מַזְהִירִים אֶת נִשְׁמות כָּל הַקְּדוֹשִׁים וּטְהוֹרִים שֶׁנֶּהֶרְגוּ הַיּוֹם בְּעִיר קָדְשֵׁנוּ עַל קִדּוּשׁ הַשֵׁם, בְּגַן עֵדֶן תְּהֵא מְנוּחָתָם. אַנָא בַּעַל הָרַחֲמִים יַסְתִּירֵם בְּסֵתֶר כְּנָפָיו לְעוֹלָמִים, וְיִצְרוֹר בִּצְרוֹר הַחַיִּים אֶת נִשְׁמוֹתֵיהֶם, ה’ הוּא נַחֲלָתָם, וְיָנוּחוּ בְּשָׁלוֹם עַל מִשְׁכְּבוֹתֵיהֶם, וְנֹאמַר אָמֵן

God, full of mercy, who dwells in the heights, provide a sure rest upon the Divine Presence’s wings–within the range of the holy and the pure, whose shining resemble the sky’s–the souls of all the holy and pure ones who were murdered, today in our holy city for the Sanctification of the Name, may the Garden of Eden be their place of repose. Please, may the Master of Mercy shelter them forever, in the shelter of Divine wings, and bind their souls in the bond of eternal life. The Everlasting is their heritage and they shall rest peacefully upon their resting place, and let us say: Amen

A Creative Birkat HaGomel: A Community Responds with Gratitude to Escaping Danger

A Creative Birkat HaGomel: A Community Responds with Gratitude to Escaping Danger

by Rabbi Rick Brody

Yesterday, the community of students, staff, faculty, and families at the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy needed to engage in safety protocols after a potential danger was discovered in the school. Everyone is safe and life at Barrack is back to normal today. But before we made that transition back to normalcy, we needed to engage Jewish ritual to collectively express our gratitude and breathe a shared sigh of relief. The gomel prayer, usually recited after an aliyah to the Torah, is the traditional liturgy for one who has just escaped any kind of danger. This morning, separate assemblies for the full middle school and upper school– in which students were commended for the cooperation yesterday and reassured about their safety–concluded with the communal recitation of this interpretive version of the prayer, composed for this purpose. Those students who attend traditional minyanim then had the opportunity to participate in the formal ritual, but all members of the Barrack community were a part of creative reading. Here is the text (click here for separate page):

An Interpretive Birkat HaGomel

 You are blessed, Eternal One, and we pray that your blessings continue to grace us.

 We began our day yesterday like any other day, grateful for what we have and hoping for freedom from danger or worry. We ended the day surprised and even frightened. We have returned here this morning, beginning with gratitude for the release from that fear. This gratitude may surprise us. We have learned once again about how easy it is to take our safety for granted. This gratitude itself is a blessing. Thank you, Source of Blessing, for opening our hearts to new gratitude, which we express together:

 To the sovereign source of protection:

(Together) We are grateful.

To the administration, staff, and faculty of our school, who responded swiftly and with care:

      We are grateful.

To our brave law-enforcement officers who came to us rapidly to ensure our safety:

      We are grateful.

To all our students, who followed instructions and cooperated to remain safe:

      We are grateful.

To our parents and loved ones, who offered us support and comfort in a time of uncertainty:

      We are grateful.

We are all chayavim–obligated, indebted.

      We are obligated.

We have placed our trust in so many beyond ourselves who work tirelessly to keep us safe.

We are indebted.

We are all chayavim.

We are all responsible.

We look out for one another and make sure our community is safe. Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh bazeh.

      All Israel is responsible for one another.

We have been the recipients of blessings.

            We are blessed with safety.

We have been the recipients of goodness.

Let our school continue to be a force for good.

May we continue to be blessed in these ways and more.

May we know only good fortune and safety as we find ways to praise you and our world.

 

Baruch ata adonai eloheinu melech haolam, hagomel lachayavim tovot she’g’malani kol tov.

Amen. Mi she’g’malcha kol tov, hu yigmolcha kol tov, selah.

Scientific Discovery and Revelation

    Scientific Discovery and Revelation

by Rabbi Rick Brody

There is so much wonderful work being done to fashion a new Jewish theology that takes scientific knowledge seriously and celebrates the majesty it reveals.

There is holiness in knowledge just as there is holiness in mystery. That which we do not know an be a source of awe, but we need to be careful not to confuse the power of “mystery” with scientific knowledge we have not yet learned. We don’t want a “God of the Gaps” that gets smaller and smaller the more we discover but rather a God of indescribable awe at all the things we can and do (as well as can’t and don’t) learn and discover. Beholding mystery is a radically different kind of knowing that can’t be taught but must be lived and experienced.

All discovery can be revelation, a standing at Mt. Sinai in the awesome and awe-inspiring, all-encompassing glory of the Source of Creation. It’s no accident that Moses ascended a mountain and that the Israelites heard (and saw!) thunder. The grandeur of natural phenomena were (and are) inextricably linked to our ever-growing knowledge of the Divine.

While Rabbinic Judaism celebrates the learning that happens over a text in a beit midrash (study hall), usually over the written word, we mustn’t forget that all Torah (the blueprint for the entire created world, according to the mystics) first came outdoors, in an unadulterated, unmediated communion within nature. Every new insight that occurs during traditional Jewish learning or prayer and every new discovery that occurs in a laboratory links us back to that multi-sensory peak experience of transformative Divine knowing and guidance that occurred at the foot of a mountain. That mythic mountain continues to tremble at each new contribution of scientific knowledge. May we listen closely not just to the content of what we keep learning about the world but also to the kolot—the thunderous echoes of Divinity—that reverberate during this never-ending process of Revelation.

Eternal Youth, Eternal Closeness, Eternal Amazement

    Eternal Youth, Eternal Closeness, Eternal Amazement

 
by Rabbi Rick Brody

Coincidences are all around us. They … open up windows of fascination with—and appreciation of—the amazing, interwoven nature of our universe.

Yesterday I saw an inspiring article about Pope Francis holding and kissing a man with a terrible bodily disfigurement. In the comments, a reader suggested that it appeared the affliction was “Proteus Syndrome” (“Elephant Man Disease”). [The article I found today (linked above) actually explains that the man with the Pope most likely has neurofibromatosis and that Joseph Carey Merrick, the famous individual who was dubbed “The Elephant Man,” is now believed to have been affected by both of these disorders.]

Out of (morbid?) curiosity, I googled the term to see some pictures and articles, which led me to a list of other rare disorders, which led me to YouTube videos from a cable-channel (TLC?) series about such phenomena. Throughout this digital journey, I found myself being overcome with empathy for my fellow human beings whose life experiences are so different from—and so much harder than—mine, likely filled with terrible pain and sadness. One of the stories was about “The girl who never aged,” made 4 years ago about a 16-year-old named Brooke Greenberg, whose body remained like a toddler’s. [As opposed to some of the other pictures and stories I found, it didn’t appear that Brooke, with her minimally developed intellect, experienced any real mental anguish.]

Just now, I randomly came across a headline that Brooke died a mere 2 weeks ago. Coincidences are all around us. They never fully surprise me but they also never cease to further open up windows of fascination with—and appreciation of—the amazing, interwoven nature of our universe. I’m just one person among millions who at some point came across Brooke’s story. It just happened that in my case it was close to the time of her death and it just happened that I stumbled upon an article today that had a link to this recent news at the bottom of the page. I’m sure there are others within the past two weeks who also learned about Brooke for the first time and then read—less than a day later—about her recent death. But those others are not me. The experience I just had is mine and I embrace it. Life just happens. Sometimes meaninglessly and sometimes with uncanny, awe-inspiring interconnectedness.

I don’t need to discern a concrete “meaning” for “why” this confluence just occurred for me. It just did. But it awakens me. It awakens me to how small we all are, how close we all are on this little, blue marble spinning endlessly on its own axis and swirling around a (slightly) larger ball of fire tucked into one corner of a milky cluster of billions of other gaseous orbs and their attendant planets. And that awareness, I hope, will draw me closer to those who, despite their apparent physical differences, their “otherness,” are really already so close and who need my love just as I need theirs. This awareness binds us together. A religious leader for billions can initiate that inspiration for love and that feeling of boundedness, and peculiar intersections of personal experience can intensify the awareness of those feelings.

May Brooke’s memory be a blessing and may those who have studied her condition be empowered to translate their learning into improvements for all of humanity.

Jewish tradition offers a blessing to be recited upon seeing “exceptionally strange-looking people or animals.” The blessing is Baruch atah … m’shaneh ha-briyot (“Blessed are You … who makes the creatures different.”) Another literal translation could be “who changes the creatures.” My hope is that—when any of us feels moved to recite such a blessing—we are actually inviting the Holy One of Blessing to bless us and change us, so that we may become more awake to our similarities that lie beneath the differences and that we can also be more empowered to embrace those differences with compassion, remembering our command to welcome and love the stranger. We don’t praise terrible and debilitating deformities as good things—we’re not thanking God for bestowing such difficulties on people. We thank God for making us in such a way that we can be moved—by noticing difference, by feeling it, and by acting lovingly in response to those feelings.

Perhaps experiencing “strange phenomena” of confluence like what has just happened to me in the past 20 hours is also worthy of this same blessing. The events themselves take on a life of their own and are “creatures.” But more importantly, the strangeness can transform me, intensifying my commitment to be a vessel of love and compassion. Thank you, Holy One, for this gift of awakening to the peculiarity, the closeness, and the need for love that all define—and continue to transform—this glorious Creation.