This one hits very close to home. I doubt that if I had ever met my colleagues who were murdered on Tuesday in Jerusalem. I doubt, too, that we would have had much in common or to agree upon if we had the chance to know one another. (I must admit, I have been wrong on such assumptions in the past.) And yet, the fact that the violence occurred in a such a sacred space and time; while the victims were doing something that I do so frequently – in a synagogue participating in communal prayer – feels like a cosmic punch to the gut.
In the last couple of weeks through the medium of video … some very sad, disturbing and tragic events in remote or more private places have been seen by millions of people around the world. ISIS or ISIL has recorded and shared the dastardly beheading of two American journalists. The start to the NFL football season has been overshadowed by the release of a video that records one of its star players punching his then fiancé. In both cases, the videos released contained events that, sadly, are not new – either in human history or in the daily lives of some of the world’s inhabitants. And yet, the sharing of the videos served as potent catalysts in dramatically impacting reactions toward those who perpetuated the violence. ISIS/ISIL has been acting in the Middle East for months, but these videos seem to have been part of the impetus for the President to respond in the public and aggressive manner in which he did and plans to lead the country. The NFL had already punished its player for the suspected violence, but the punishment was dramatically increased once the video was released to the public.
These are two very negative and powerful examples of how actually seeing something, affects us more profoundly than hearing about it, reading about it or even just thinking about it. There exists a potent element to taking the time, utilizing the tools or technology we have to examine and understand the events that unfold around us … and within us. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur serve as a kind of spiritual technology that can be used to see our lives more closely and clearly. It is a kind of seeing that is beyond the scope of our physical senses. It is a kind of seeing that one does with our spiritual ‘senses’.
These High Holydays stake claim to set aside sacred time from our lives to examine our choices and their consequences for us and the world around us. The close viewing – witnessing – of those aspects of our lives that we many not give such close attention to the rest of the year – can be empowering and frightening; transforming and intimidating. This spiritual technology demands self-awareness and the constructive actions that follow. As raw, honest and vulnerable that we may feel by seeing ourselves so closely and clearly – those feelings cannot compare to the numbness, rigidity and stuckness that results when we do not bear witness to the life of our own souls.
As Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur approach us once again, I pray that we may all see them for the challenge, utility, necessity and opportunity they present … to look honestly, justly and compassionately on the state of our lives … and understand enough from what we see to make this next year one of growth, joy and meaning.
The weapons of war are heartless, inexact and utterly destructive. Bombs, missiles, shells, bullets, grenades, knives, fists and feet bring pain, injury and loss. Those of us outside the physical theater of war find our hearts heavy with sadness, shock and anguish as we glean the news about and lament the violence and destruction of people and property. We are not soldiers in these battles and cannot feel or know the anxiety, shock and fear that accompanies being there. Nonetheless, It is from afar we feel and experience faint aftershocks of each act of violence.
However, there is another battlefield that is not limited to a military theater – bounded by geographic constraints and physical boundaries. It is the battlefield of identity, ideas and values. It is the battlefield of communities, nations, peoples. These battlefields cannot be constrained by geography, distance or any physical border. And while there are times when we encounter some of the weapons used in the military theater of battle, these are not the most prevalent weapons in this virtual theater. In this theater, in this battlefield words – and the ideas, feelings and meaning behind them – are the weapons used by the masses for destruction. We are quite impotent when it comes to directly affecting the use of weapons on the physical battlefield, such is not the case with the verbal weapons we witness, experience and utilize in this larger battlefield.
This week’s Torah portion begins the book of Deuteronomy or Devarim. The portion and the book begin: “Eleh Devarim – These are the words that Moses addressed to all of Israel … “. The entire book of Deuteronomy/Devarim (34 chapters) are Moses’ words of reminder, encouragement, chastisement and guidance to the Israelites. A simple, yet pithy teaching speaks of the power of these words used by Moses. It also speaks to us about the way that the power of words may be wielded for destruction or construction. A midrash teaches that the word: devarim (meaning ‘words’) can be vocalized in Hebrew to also read d’vorim (meaning: ‘bees’). It suggests that just as sharp, painful and even destructive that a bee’s sting may be – a bee’s honey may also be sweet, pleasing and nourishing. Moses’s words – the words of Torah – contain the nourishing nature of honey and the pain inducing nature of the stinger.
Even though we may be overwhelmed by the physical violence and destruction of the implements of war, we would be wise not to ignore or underestimate the power contained in the implements of our battlefield – the words we use. It will be the words of politicians, diplomats, soldiers AND the words of the individuals of those communities that will tear down or build up. After this fighting ends – and hopefully it will soon – it will be devarim – words that either continue the destruction wrought in this conflict or somehow, someway begin the work constructing a peace.
Let us keep these words, these devarim and the message behind them prominent in our minds and hearts as we process and respond to the events unfolding on the physical battlefield in this place so precious to the Jewish people and to the rest of the world.
My grandma knows everything. I do not remember what age I was when I first began announcing this piece of information to the world. I do not remember the moment, either, that this realization first struck me as discernable and true. And yet there it was – beyond the lens of the more experienced (and perhaps jaded) eyes of a parent seeing her or his own parent; through the simple, noble and definitive vision of child – in the way that a grandchild can connect, understand and appreciate the wonder of a grandparent – it was quite clear to me: My grandma knows everything.
The Hebrew word that we most commonly translate from the verb ‘to know’ is Da’at. It is used in a myriad of ways in the Tanach – expressing all kinds of knowing or knowledge – from knowing the difference between ‘good and evil’ to knowing someone in the ‘biblical sense’ to knowing what is true and how the world works because one’s life experience. The mystics understand Da’at as the concrete and solid manifestation of our accumulated understanding and wisdom. The nature of Da’at is not about espousing pieces of information or overwhelming others with impressive data – but honestly and boldly living what we know. Da’at is how we embody what we understand, how we live the truths that are embedded in our hearts and souls. So, from what I thought I understood as a child to what I thought I understood no more as a young adult … today, as a middle aged adult, I am quite clear in my mind and heart as I tell you: My grandma knows everything.
Phyllis Bookatz – in the way she lived her life – embodied this Da’at – this knowing – in how she worked, how she played; how she spent her time, energy and money; how she fought and how she loved. Within this life of actions, deeds and values we see what she knew. My grandma knows everything. However, ‘everything’, might take too long for us to cover in the time that I am given to celebrate her this morning. So, I ask you to indulge me as I share with you just a small portion of that ‘everything’ that I am blessed to understand and hopefully ‘know’ myself one day.
My grandma knows about working hard, commitment, perseverance and strength. With her practical, stick-to-it and serious nature – my grandmother was a doer. She was someone upon whom others could depend, someone who would get things done. She would not get caught up in the what-ifs or the emotionality of a task or a project – she would put her head down and do what she needed to do – because it needed to get done. There are many examples from her life about how she knew about these things. My aunts, uncle and mom can tell you examples from their childhood; my cousins share my witness to the thing she did – not just for the community – but for each one of us – the people at B’nai Jeshurun can share them, too and so can the countless others who knew Phyllis in one of her life endeavors. From among these numerous moments of commitment, perseverance and strength … one profoundly speaks to me. I cannot speak about my grandmother without speaking about my grandfather. The two were inextricably combined in my memory and my heart. They were an entity, a force together. They were yin and yang before it was cool and hip to talk about people being yin and yang. As formidable (and sometimes intimidating) as each could be individually, they were more so together. And yet, almost three decades ago – my grandfather died in a slow, painful and treacherous manner. I remember feeling worried and concerned for her – how would she overcome this devastating loss of her Jules. To this day I am awed and inspired by the way that my grandma lived after he died. Tapping into her storehouse of a lifetime of acquired commitment, perseverance and strength – Phyllis crafted, created and forged a life – that while did not include her beloved Jules – did include meaning, purpose and love. She knew how to commit, to persevere to be strong and how to survive. My grandma knows everything.
My grandma knows about being Jewish. Identifying, acting and living as a Jewish person was essential to my grandmother’s life. She knew the formal, more public ways that one might understand her Judaism. My grandmother’s commitment to Heights Temple/B’nai Jeshurun and Israel Bonds are legendary. Her home (i.e. her kitchen) was ground zero for every significant Jewish holiday. I could go on and on listing these formal involvements and commitments of hers … But there was more to what she knew about being a Jew. When I first decided to pursue a career as a rabbi in the Reform movement and not the Conservative one, I think I feared how she might respond … having been so committed and immersed in a Conservative community that she and my grandfather loved so much. And yet, that was never the case for even a moment. From my grandmother, I have come to understand Judaism more deeply and broadly than than the lines drawn by its institutions. Again, while she would have never been one to express it – she lived Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan’s understanding that Judaism was bigger being only a religion, or culture or ethnicity … it is a civilization. And she embraced the fullness of this diversity and it’s complexity. She supported and was supported by the religious, cultural, ethnic and national ways of being a Jew. She lived as if Judaism and being a Jew was bigger, larger and more important than any particular ritual or politics or doctrine – and held no patience when those (or other dynamics) got in the way of being a Jew. (And she would let anyone within earshot know what she thought.) When I began the path of becoming a Reform rabbi, I feared I might be taking steps away from her … And what I have come to understand is that every step I took actually brought me closer to what she knew about being a Jew. Phyllis Bookatz knew about living a Jewish life. My grandma knows everything.
My grandma knows about family. We all here know the numbers … four loving and devoted children; 4 sons and daughter in law who join in that love and devotion; 13 grandchildren, 12 and soon-to-be 14 great grandchildren. In many of our conversations and particularly in our last one, my grandmother wanted me to know how extremely blessed she felt to have the love and devotion of all of her children and grandchildren – she knew complete and genuine gratitude. Each of us can speak of the numerous ways that her presence in our lives mattered deeply to us and enriched us. And yet for me, what she knew … what I have come to understand from her about family and relationships may be the most precious, essential and difficult lesson to learn. My grandma would not be one to teach the theology of Martin Buber, but she taught me a great deal about his lofty ideal about the nature of divinity. You see, Buber teaches that God is the name for what happens when two individuals love one another completely – for the other’s gifts and for the other’s limitations. I cannot speak of my grandmother without speaking about this precious piece of ultimate wisdom I learned from my relationship with her. A mature relationship means loving someone for all that they are – because of their greatest gifts and their most challenging limitations. The fact that I can stand here today speaking to you at her request – speaks to what she knew and what I seek to know in my own life. Families and intimate relationships are the most powerful and influential forces of nature in our lives. Like any force of nature they can elevate us and flatten us, bring us joy and pain. When we are able to love one another not in spite of, but because of our flaws and mistakes we are able to experience the full divinity embedded in each relationship in our lives. I understand from my grandma about the sweetness offering and receiving redemption and forgiveness; about the elastic nature of families and relationships and their power to impact and endure. Phyllis Bookatz knew about family. My grandma knows everything.
And now perhaps, in the realm that her soul dwells now … she does truly know everything … or maybe not. My grandma was always pretty clear – set in her practical and matter of fact way about life, death and what happens beyond this world. In fact, she often appeared as a foil when I have found myself teaching about Jewish views of life after death. She would represent the view that when we die, we die … there is only this world and so the only thing we can do is make the best of it. Fitting to her nature and way of living in this world, and yet … In the last year or so she seemed to open her mind to the possibility of another possibility. She would not talk extensively about this shift in ideology, except to mention the thought or possibility of being with my grandfather again someday. For my grandma, this simple suggestion was seismic in nature … and brings me great comfort. Comfort in the shadow of death and our grief that she may be with right now her beloved Jules. Comfort in the light of the mystery of life that no matter where she may be that all she knew is such an essential and fundamental part of the lives of those of us who cherish and love her.
For my beloved grandma, who knows everything … I offer these words from the poet as my prayer of thanksgiving for the blessing of your presence in all of our lives:
Epitaph (Merritt Malloy)
Give what’s left of me away
And old men that wait to die.
And if you need to cry,
Cry for your brother
Walking the street beside you.
And when you need me,
Put your arms
And give them
What you need to give to me.
I want to leave you something,
Look for me
In the people I’ve known
And if you cannot give me away,
At least let me live on your eyes
And not on your mind.
You can love me most
Hands touch hands,
Bodies touch bodies,
And by letting go
That need to be free.
Love doesn’t die,
So, when all that’s left of me
Give me away.
The Palestinians: A kidnapped society
It may not be on your radar, but the Jewish holiday of Shavout is upon us. Historically, it is a big one … one of the three pilgrimage festivals for which our ancestors congregated in Jerusalem at the Temple. Currently, as far as popular recognition or observance goes, it could be said that Shavuot does not reside on the Mt. Rushmore of Jewish Holidays.
Originally, an agriculturally based observance of first fruits, Shavuot also became the medium to celebrate a fairly significant event in the mythic life of the Jews – the Sinai moment. In our story that is told in Torah, the Sinai moment is where God speaks to the Israelite community directly (not through Moses as is commonly thought in the collective Jewish psyche — or as Mel Brooks or Cecil B. Demille portrays).
For most liberal Jews this significant moment in our collective story is hard to embrace. Accepting the literal or figurative truth in the story can be challenging. For me, I certainly lean in that direction … and yet, somewhere and somehow I do not want to completely reject the possibility of an encounter or experience that wow’s us, moves us and transforms us. When I consider the Sinai story and its implications, I understand it as our tradition’s code for expressing the possibility of encounters with the divine … and its challenge to think about our readiness and openness to such encounters.
So, Jews around the world will focus on the Sinai moment this week. (Tuesday night or Wednesday are the actual days on which Shavuot falls this year). In the spirit of encountering the divine, perhaps you have a few moments (actually on Shavuot or sometime this week) for consideration, cogitation or contemplation of Sinai-esque moments. If you are so inclined, please use this Shavout exercise as a guide.
- Carve out some time where you can sit, relax and reflect.
- If you can make it a space where you can experience of bit of the majesty that is part of our Colorado mountains, better yet!
- Bring along something to write with (if that is something you prefer) or something to sip on (if that is something you prefer).
- Make yourself comfortable … first physically, make sure you are good to sit for some time.
- Then mentally, take a few moments, focus on your breathing, empty your mind of what you have to do or what you did not do … just clear out your mind of the clutter of the everyday.
- Let’s put aside trying to get our heads and hearts around the actual experience of the divine encounter. Let’s consider the preparation or readiness for such an encounter.
- Read this description from Torah about the organization of the Israelites in the wilderness (as they prepared for their spiritual journey) and the explanation of it from the Etz Hayim Torah Commentary:
NUMBERS 2:1: The Israelites shall camp each with his standard, under the banners of their ancestral house; they shall camp around the Tent of Meeting at a distance.
- To sum up: Knowing one’s sense of self or place prepares one for encountering the divine.
- How ready are you for a divine encounter? How clear, defined or grounded is your own sense of self. Take some time to consider each of these aspects – as named by Torah – of your own place. As you do, write or draw (or some combination of these) as you process.
2) Your Ancestral Banners: What does the banner or your family look like? What is the nature of your relationship with the people in your family? Which relationships are most challenging? Which relationships are most rewarding? What are the gifts of your family that you most cherish? What ‘gifts’ are more burdensome?
3) The Tent of Meeting: What does your communal tent look like? What the communities of which you find yourself? How do you participation in each of them? How do you contribute to each of them? How do your communities sustain you?
- Imagine your standard, banner and tent before you. Name, visualize and imagine the potential Sinai moments on your current path.
- Take a few more moments to be in the moment, reflect on what you thought about, wrote or drew.
My garage is a disaster right now. Between planting the garden, helping a friend with a building project, upgrading kids rooms with new beds (which means the old beds live in the garage until they are sold) and the usual collection of bric-a-brac that resides in it … my garage (have I mentioned?) is a disaster. Now, most people who know me (and definitely those who live with me) would not consider me a neat freak by any means. Still, this level of disorder unseats and unsettles me. It frustrates me and makes me impatient with the other contributors to the mess. It inhibits my creativity (the garage is where I do most of my woodworking). In a small, but not insignificant way it makes my home base feel a little less homey.
In this week’s Torah portion, Bemidbar … the Israelites are being ordered and organized for their march through the wilderness to the Promised Land. I imagine that this collection of stubborn, unruly and recently liberated slaves had the potential to mythically resemble the state of my garage. Perhaps it is for this reason that they are given very mundane, specific instructions – tribe by tribe and person by person – where and how to stand and with what implements and adornments. Apparently, reaching the Promised Land needs some level of order and even discipline.
- “Many commentators note the details here of tribal encampments as a way of emphasizing the need for order and organization in achieving a spiritual life. Simcha Zissel Ziv writes: “A person disorderly in behavior is also confused in thought, incapable of stable, consistent work.””
Or stated differently, how we order the physical impacts the spiritual. And perhaps, too, how we order the physical reflects the spiritual. The various aspects of we human animals (physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual) do not live in separate silos from one another. They exist, interact and react in a rich, complex web. It is web of connectedness the we ignore at own peril and embrace with the possibility of profound growth and meaning.
It’s time for me clean my garage.