Posts Tagged ‘Judaism’

Rachel and Leah: Rivals into Allies?

November 13, 2021

It was my turn this Shabbat to deliver a d’var Torah (commentary) after the group discussion in Temple Sinai’s weekly Torah study class. This week’s portion, Vayetzei, covers Genesis 28:10 to 32:3, but the class discussion focused only on the final third. So I chose to center my presentation on an earlier section, the rivalry between Rachel and Leah. Here it is.

Like many of the parshot in Genesis, a lot happens during Vayetzei. Jacob sets out from his family’s home in Beersheva, both to flee the anger of Esau and to find a wife from among his mother Rebecca’s family. Lying down to sleep on a rock, he dreams of a ladder or ramp to heaven with angels going up and down. In his dream, God stands beside him and blesses him, saying his descendants shall spread out to the four corners of the earth and all the families of the earth will be blessed by them. 

Jacob wakes and names the site Beth-el, House of God, which is located about ten miles north of Jerusalem, near what today is the Palestinian city of Ramallah on the West Bank. 

Jacob continues on to Haran, which is quite a long journey, up through Syria into what is today Turkey. He meets his cousin Rachel at a well, much as Abraham’s servant found Isaac’s future wife Rebecca at a well. Rachel’s father Laban agrees to let him marry Rachel if he works unpaid for seven years; then on the wedding night, Laban tricks him by substituting Rachel’s older sister Leah—a parallel with how Jacob tricked his own father by pretending to be Esau. Laban requires Jacob to work without pay for another seven years in order to marry Rachel too. 

The Torah then enters into an extended section on the two sisters’ childbearing—or lack of childbearing. Eventually Jacob decides to return home, and there is an episode of one trickster tricking another trickster, with Jacob slyly arranging to get possession of many of Laban’s sheep and goats. That gets us up to the portion of Vayetzei that we read together today in class. 

But I’m going to return to that long section about childbearing and the relationship between Leah and Rachel. 

Rachel and Leah, as imagined by 19th century English poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. (It looks a little more like a romanticized Renaissance England than the ancient Middle East, don’t you think?)

The Torah tells us that Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah. “And God saw that Leah was unloved and he opened her womb, but Rachel was barren.” Leah conceives and bears one son—Reuben—then another, and another, and another— four sons in a row while Rachel can’t get pregnant. 

Both of these sisters are in deep emotional pain. 

Infertility is certainly traumatic, especially in a society like the ancient middle east where women were valued only as mothers of sons.  “Give me children, or I shall die,” Rachel pleads to Jacob in a dramatic statement of how crucial childbearing was to her.

But I felt an even deeper identification with Leah. She was married, presumably without any say in the matter, to a man who didn’t love her. When her first son is born she chooses the name Reuben, saying “It means the Lord has seen my affliction. It also means, ‘ Now my husband will love me.” But it doesn’t help. Whenher second son comes, shge says, “The Lord heard that I was unloved and has given me this one also.” And it doesn’t help. And then the third. She says, “This time my husband will become attached to me for I have borne him three sons.” And it still didn’t help.

She is doing everything in her power to win Jacob’s love —everything possible to fulfill the role expected of her, to provide healthy male heirs, everything that anyone in her world would ask of her—and it still doesn’t help. 

I imagine this desperate young woman, getting her hopes up over and over—this time it will work! this time it really will!—and each time it doesn’t. Haven’t we all been there at some time, trying so hard and yet knocked down over and over again? 

Perhaps when we were in our teens, infatuated with some boy or girl, convinced that If I wear my new red miniskirt, they’ll notice me! If I bake chocolate chip cookies, they’ll notice me! If I help them with their math homework, they’ll notice me! Trying over and over, so sincerely, and of course they don’t notice.

Or perhaps at work, trying to get a promotion: If I stay until 6 pm each night, they’ll notice me! If I turn in the most thorough report ever, they’ll notice me! If I learn to play golf, they’ll notice me! Trying over and over, playing by all the rules, and of course they don’t notice. Because you’re female, or Black, or you’ll never be one of the “old boys,” or whatever…. 

In those modern scenarios, the advice is clear: Leave. Find a new crush, find a new job. But Leah, as a wife in the ancient Middle East, had no option of leaving. And the stakes for her were so much higher than a junior-high crush or a promotion. This was pregnancy and childbirth—nine months of pregnancy, hours or days of labor, things that in those days truly risked death. But none of it made Jacob love her.

So the competition went on, dragging in other parties like a world war. After Leah’s fourth son, Rachel still can’t conceive and so gives her servant—her handmaid— Bilhah to Jacob as a concubine. 

(Just an aside: The Torah has Rachel saying to Jacob, “Here is my maid Bilhah. Consort with her, that she may bear on my knees and that through her I too may have children.” Some commenters including Robert Alter say that “bearing on my knees” refers to an ancient practice of placing children on someone’s knees as a ritual of adoption. But writer Margaret Atwood chose to take this literally in her patriarchal dystopia of The Handmaid’s Tale—this is the source for the horrible practice of the handmaid literally giving birth between the knees of the patriarch’s wife.)

But back to Rachel and Leah and their childbearing competition. Leah is ahead, 4 to nothing. But then Rachel’s servant Bilhah bears two sons by Jacob, and Rachel says “A fateful contest I waged with my sister, and I have prevailed.” You can imagine her doing an ancient Mesopatamian fist punch in the air. 

So Leah then gives Jacob her servant Zilpah, who bears two sons. This is starting to sound like the US-Soviet arms race. It parallels the sibling rivalry between Jacob and Esau, yet in some ways it is more intense and painful because both siblings were so aware of it—two women living side by side  in the same family compound for 20 years, with close-up, unavoidable views of each other’s ongoing victories and failings. 

It’s horrible to think of these two sisters in a permanent state of war. Some of the commentators seemed to think so too: There are midrashim that weave stories of empathy and solidarity between Leah and Rachel. 

One midrash from the Talmud says that Rachel knew in advance of Laban’s wedding-night trick, warned Jacob, and he came up with a way to defeat Laban’s scheme.

Jacob gave Rachel signs [so that he would be able to recognize her on their wedding night].

When Leah was brought under the wedding canopy, Rachel thought: “Now my sister will be shamed [when Jacob discovers the fraud and does not marry her].” She gave the signs to Leah.  (BT Bava Batra 123a).

According to the Rabbis, Laban would not have succeeded in deceiving Jacob without Rachel’s involvement. Rachel had to choose between her love for Jacob and her compassion for her sister, and she decided in favor of the latter. The most extreme description of Rachel’s act of self-sacrifice appears in Lam. Rabbah, according to which Rachel entered under Jacob and Leah’s bed on their wedding night. When Jacob spoke with Leah, Rachel would answer him, so that he would not identify Leah’s voice (Lam. Rabbah [ed. Vilna] petihtah 24).

I would like to think that, alongside the pain of infertility or being the second-choice wife, there was also empathy and solidarity between the sisters. Like the rest of the Torah, this parshah was written by men, from stories handed down by men, and this reproductive arms race may be their outsider’s view of what was going on within the family tent while the men were away with the flocks. 

Let’s look at what happens next, after Bilhah and Zilpah have each birthed two sons and the total son count is up to eight. Reuben, Leah’s oldest son, brings her some mandrakes that he finds in the field. (Mandrakes, having a root that is bizarrely shaped like a human figure, have been imagined in many cultures to bring fertility.)

Mandrake root / Photo by Jenny Laird

Rachel asks Leah for some of the mandrakes, hoping to cure her infertility. Leah at first refuses, saying, “Was it not enough for you to take away my husband, that you would also take my son’s mandrakes?” But then Rachel promises that Leah can sleep with Jacob that evening in exchange for the mandrakes, and Leah agrees. 

Leah goes out to meet Jacob that evening and tells him. “You are to sleep with me, for I have hired you with my son’s mandrakes.”

This is a truly shocking moment. Leah is in command for once—unlike her own wedding night, she has the power here. She is commanding Jacob to sleep with her. And not just commanding him, she is saying that she hired him, like you would hire a prostitute, like you would hire an ox to plow a field.

Perhaps her grief all those years was not just at being unloved—it was at being powerless, manipulated by her father in order to get more work out of Jacob, unable to choose her own fate. Here for once she is able to take fate into her own hands and turn the tables. Jacob in effect becomes a sex object here. 

It’s not pretty, but perhaps it was satisfying or even restorative for Leah. Perhaps Rachel wanted to give her this gift of momentary power. 

We don’t know. What we do know is that, three sons later, when Jacob is ready to leave Haran, the two sisters respond in unison.

“Then Rachel and Leah answered him, saying, ‘Have we still a share in the inheritance of our father’s house? Surely he regards us as outsiders, now that he has sold us and has used up our purchase price. Truly, all the wealth that God has taken away fronm our father belongs to us and to our children. Now then, do just what God as told you.”

In current slang, we might say there’s no daylight between the two sisters here. No rivalry, no disagreement. They have long been done with their father’s manipulation and are ready to leave—together—for Jacob’s promised land.


So matzah matter with you?

March 27, 2013

Passover eve – can’t wait for matzah

Passover Day 1 – love that matzah

Passover Day 2 – like that matzah

Passover Day 3 – I am becoming a matzah

Passover Day 4 – do all the carpets in my house have dandruff?

Passover Day 5 – discover one thing worse than matzah, which is whole wheat matzah

Passover Day 6 – writing indie movie called Triscuit Dreams

Passover Day 7 – revelation while in hallucinogenic, yeast-deprived state that Pharoah actually invented matzah as ultimate revenge on the Israelites

Passover Day 8 – I think Passover is over in Israel already, can I have a turkey sandwich now?

Day after Passover – throw out multiple unopened boxes of matzah bought in bulk to save money

Week after Passover – mmm, you know what would taste good right now…

Family traditions, my traditions?

December 7, 2012

What happens to family traditions when your family goes away?

Well, “family goes away” might be stating things a bit too strongly. But this is our first winter with our daughter away in college, and holidays feel different when there is no child in the house.

Even if for the past couple of years that “child” was a big, independent, less-than-optimally-communicative teenager.

Take Chanukah, which arrives this weekend with its usual single-candle blaze of glory. Normally we would make a Big Deal of the first night of Chanukah — festive dinner with relatives or friends, lots of presents, latkes, chocolate gelt, dreidels. Most years we would end up making latkes on two or three different evenings for different configurations of friends and guests. And we always made sure to buy at least eight gifts, and we had big gift-opening hoopla every night.

This year? I do not want to cook a single latke. I will be completely fine if I don’t eat a single latke. Okay, I’ll eat some when we get together with our chavurah in late December, but other than that…. meh.

Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, I'm free at last / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, I’m free at last / Photo by Ilana DeBare

I don’t want to open gifts every night either. I’d like to open gifts on the last night, when Daughter will be home for her winter vacation. But other than that, I don’t really care.

What I do want is to light the candles and say the blessings. Just a nice straightforward little candle-lighting at dinnertime with Sam. (Followed by watching some Jon Stewart re-runs?)

In one sense, this is completely reasonable. Chanukah is a minor holiday in Jewish tradition, which mushroomed out of its historic proportions in the past 50 years as American Jews tried to come up with a counterbalance to the glitter of Christmas. Lighting candles with a minimum of fuss is probably closer to the traditional Chanukah than what we’ve been doing in our household for the past 18 years.

But there are other times when the issue is murkier. Take Shabbat. When Daughter was home, we lit candles and said blessings on most Friday nights where we were all home together. This fall, when Sam and I have been home on a Friday, it’s felt slightly weird lighting candles with just the two of us.

Part of me felt, “Why are we going through the motions? It’s just the two of us.”

Which raised the question… were we just lighting candles to educate our child? or were we doing it for us also?

That question is more nuanced for me than it might be for some people because I was not raised with much Judaism at all. My family had a Passover seder and lit a menorah, but we never celebrated Shabbat or belonged to a synagogue. So the Jewish traditions I carry out are ones that I’ve consciously chosen as an adult, rather than ones I inhaled with my childhood air.

But back to that Shabbat moment of to-light-or-not-to-light….

I lit.

I skipped the white table cloth. But I lit the candles, even without Daughter.

And there are really two reasons for that. One is that as adults, we need to take care of ourselves — regardless of whether we have kids around or not. I don’t want to be someone who lives on TV Dinners because there are no children to cook for. I don’t want to be that old lady who lets the house go uncleaned and unrepaired because she’s the only one living there. We need to nourish ourselves as well as our children.

Shabbat is a kind of nourishment, like a home-cooked meal, an occasional massage,  a bouquet of flowers from the farmer’s market. And that brings me to the second reason — I do want to keep Shabbat as a part of my life. I care about it and believe in it. So I lit.

But clearly that’s not true for every Jewish tradition. Some are falling by the wayside.

Building a Sukkah? We did it for about ten years when Daughter was little. Now? Forget it!

Latkes? Can live without the oil, the mess and the calories.

Shabbat? Big Passover Seder? Chanukah candle-lighting? Those are keepers.

What about you? Any changes in your family rituals or traditions if you’ve had children leave home? And what does that say about your values and priorities? 

In Toledo, asleep in the room of the moneylenders

October 25, 2012

We took advantage of our empty nest status to take a week-long trip to Spain this month, the first time in almost 20 years that we could travel at a time when schools weren’t on vacation. In Toledo, we have been staying in a delightful small hotel called La Posada de Manolo that, for me, is as evocative and fascinating as any of the official sights in this historic medieval city.

The Sanchez Nunez family turned their 500-year-old home into a hotel that celebrates Toledo’s three religious heritages — Moorish (Muslim), Jewish and Christian. In a detailed and  incredibly thoughtful renovation in 2001, each of the three floors was decorated to honor one of those traditions.

Rooms were named after various medieval professions. Purely by happenstance, we ended up on the Jewish floor in a room that, instead of a number, is called Los Prestamistas — the Moneylenders. (Before your anti-Semitism antennae start vibrating furiously, let me add that that the other rooms on the Jewish floor are the Farmers, Doctors and Translators.)

Sam after a tough day of touring, in the Moneylenders room / Photo by Ilana DeBare

La Posada de Manolo is outfitted in my favorite style of European hotel — revealing and emphasizing the historic, artisanal “bones” of the building while providing modern comforts like wifi and a good mattress. The hallways show the heavy wooden ceiling beams; the rooms have thick, ornate wooden doors that close with iron latches. The head board and night tables in our room are heavy, rustic wood.

And the decor is geared to the room’s vocational theme — a wooden case on one wall holds brass scales that might have been used by money lenders, while another wall displays two medieval drawings of financial transactions. The Farmers room down the hall had a big rustic pitchfork mounted on its wall. A Moorish room named after Silversmiths had, of course, some silver cups and bowls on the wall.

It’s like sleeping in a museum!

Scales on the wall of our room / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Like the owners of La Posada de Manolo, the city of Toledo has made a concerted effort to recognize and celebrate its three heritages. Jews lived here for about 1,000 years until they were expelled in 1492; Muslims lived here for hundreds of years until they too were forced out with the Inquisition.

The government has renovated two synagogues, turning the stunning Sinagoga del Transito (built in the 1300s by Jews, with permission from the Christian rulers, and using Moorish craftsmen and design motifs) into a museum of Jewish life in Spain. The onetime Juderia or Jewish Quarter has tiny tiles embedded in the stone streets that say in Hebrew “Sepharad” (Spanish Jewry) and “Chai” (lives). Our timing wasn’t right to catch it, but the city sponsored seven encuentros with Jewish culture in 2012 — mini-festivals of food, music and film timed to holidays such as Sukkot and Chanukah.

Sinagoga de Transito, with Moorish-influenced windows and carved walls, facing east where the Ark of the Torah would have been / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Biblical text bordering the synagogue just below the roof / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Street with “chai” tile in the Jewish quarter of Toledo / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Every time Sam and I go to Europe, we seek out pieces of local Jewish history — the ghetto in Venice, the former Jewish quarter in Amsterdam, the old cemetery and synagogues in Prague. Honestly, it’s more interesting to me than cathedrals. (Although we visit those too of course.) There’s a personal connection, even if my ancestors lived nowhere near these cities. I think, “Huh, this is how I might have lived if I had been here in 1400.”

So it’s both gratifying and impressive to me how much Europe has, in the past fifty years, moved to celebrate its Jewish heritage. They slaughtered us, tortured us, burned us, forcibly converted us, expelled us, and as recently as the 1940s tried to industrially eradicate us from the planet. Many cities no longer have actual Jewish communities. Yet  in the space of one generation, Europeans have turned around, acknowledged their wrongs and put out a welcome mat to Jewish culture. (Sepherad chai!)

Of course one can quibble cynically with this. It’s easy to ask: Are North African immigrants or Roma minorities the modern substitute for Jews in European bigotry? Is anti-Zionist rhetoric the 21st century version of anti-Semitism? But consider countries like Iran and Iraq that expelled or persecuted Jews more recently than Europe. Wouldn’t it be great to have them acknowledge the historic contributions of their Jewish populations the way that Western Europe has? Wouldn’t it be great to see Sepharad Chai (or the Persian translation of that) in the sidewalks of Teheran?

So this is all really good. I love the renovated synagogues, the restored Jewish cemeteries, our little Jewish floor at La Posada de Manolo.

But it’s also unsettling. Visiting Europe, you’re confronted not just with 1,500 years worth of great art and architecture, but with 1,500 years of nearly-constant war. Spain fighting England, England fighting France, France fighting Spain, etc. The post-World War II Europe of cooperation, economic integration, social democracy and human rights is a brilliant development but a very recent, very young development.

View from our hotel window of the Toledo cathedral, built between 1226 and 1495 / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Meanwhile, we Jews have lived in the United States in significant numbers for only about 130 years — and we feel completely secure. Assimilated. Americanized. We worry about Israel, but about ourselves? Not really. We are U.S. senators, university professors, hedge fund managers, newspaper pundits, community organizers, Hollywood producers. We are the model of a successful minority.

And so were the Jews of Spain! They lived here for a thousand years! Samuel Levi, who built the Sinagoga del Transito and for whom a street is named in the Jewish Quarter, was treasurer to the king of Spain!

And then…. expulsion and Inquisition.

Photo by Ilana DeBare

I found myself thinking, as we meandered our merry touristic way with cameras and guidebooks in hand, of some lines in Gates of Repentance, the Reform prayerbook for Yom Kippur. This section of the afternoon service recounts the history of persecution of the Jews and concludes:

Look and remember. Look upon this land,
Far, far across the factories and the grass.
Surely there, surely, they will let you pass.
Speak then and ask the forest and the loam.
What do you hear? What does the land command?
The earth is taken; this is not your home.

Sea glass and Rosh Hashanah

September 10, 2012

I spent the weekend at our Stinson Beach house with Leslie Laurien, one of our co-owners, creating mosaics on two bare concrete steps. Leslie has been going to Stinson for more than a decade, collecting sea glass the entire time, and so had amassed a fabulous collection of smooth, rounded pieces in a variety of colors. There were various shades of clear glass, from milky white to slightly blue and even violet. There were beer-bottle-brown pieces, and green, a few tiny cobalt blue ones. In addition, Leslie had gathered broken tea cups, tiles, marbles and shards of mirrors. Before going any further, I need to say that she is an incredible artist (some of whose work you can view here) and I was more the — shall we say — sorcerer’s apprentice. :-)

Here is a picture of the project underway, and one of what we ended up with. It still needs to be grouted.

Photo by Ilana DeBare

Photo by Ilana DeBare

Even sitting in piles on the stoop, the sea glass pieces were beautiful. Washed and rubbed and ground by the waves for decades until smooth enough for a child to hold, they start out as trash but look like exotic gems by the time you find them on the beach. Some of my favorites are the ones that are barely larger than dots — tiny green or blue or cloudy pearls.

Then last night, I woke up in the dark thinking of those pearly glass dots in tandem with some comments that our rabbi has been posting on Facebook. It wasn’t any conscious connection; those two things just slid together in my sleepy mind.

As part of Elul, the month leading up to the high holy days, Rabbi Andrew Straus has been posting a short question or story each day, designed to spark reflection.

Just little questions, in the oh-so-flippant and distracting world of Facebook. I guess they are like bits of precious glass found on a beach. So I thought I’d reprint a few:

If I could live this past year over again: what would I do the same? What would I do differently?
For the things you would do the same – what lesson can you learn?
For the things you would do differently – is there a pattern? What can you learn from that?
What can you do at this point to change the things that you want to change?


The story is told of Jacob and Eliezer who were on a difficult journey together. They helped each other out of many tough situations. One day as they crossed a raging river Jacob nearly drowned. Eliezer saved his friend’s life. Once they were safely on the other side Jacob chiseled into a nearby rock, “In this place Eliezer risked his life to save the life of his friend  Jacob.”

Several days later Jacob and Eliezer got into a terrible fight regarding who would carry the food. Jacob took a stick and wrote in the dirt: “In this place Eliezer broke the heart of his friend Jacob during a trivial argument.” Eliezer watched and asked; “Why did my heroism get carved into stone, but the fact that I broke your heart only get scratched into the dirt?”

Jacob smiled and responded; “I will forever cherish how you saved my life, risking your own to do so, but as for the insults and hurtful words, these I hope will fade as quickly as the words I have scratched in the dirt.” With that, Jacob rose and wiped the inscription away with his foot.

How many of us are carrying minor hurts with us that can be wiped away? How many of us are holding on to words said in anger and forgetting the words said in love? How many of us are remembering the hurt and forgetting the mitzvot the good deeds done for us? What would it take to wipe the words away?

And another:

“It is a cornerstone for Judaism …, that however great a person’s transgressions may be, they fail to penetrate to the innermost core of one’s soul. Always and under all circumstances, there remains something pure, precious and sacred in a person’s soul.” (Rabbi Soloveitchik)

Who are you at your core? What is precious and sacred in your soul? What makes you, you?
How do you get in touch with your innermost core? What can you do to let your core shine brighter?

Rosh Hashanah begins at sundown this coming Sunday. Shanah tovah! 

May your coming year be as sweet as apples and honey, and as shiny as sea glass pieces, smoothed and polished into gems from our unwanted, discarded trash.

Photo by Ilana DeBare

When rituals have meaning (or not)

February 10, 2012

Let’s start with an apology: My posts here have been getting fewer and further-between! Between the new job and the old freelance clients, I have found little time to focus on blogging in the past month. I will keep going, but perhaps not quite as often as before.

Meanwhile, as a gesture of atonement, I’d like to share a wonderful column from the latest J Weekly by Editor Sue Fishkoff. I’m on the J board, and was delighted to have helped hire Sue last fall. She is smart, energetic, deeply knowledgeable about the Jewish community and (as you will see) a super writer. I just wish we could clone her so she could both edit and write full-time for the paper.

FYI: If you’d like to see more of Sue’s work as editor and writer, J offers a free four-week trial print subscription by mail for California residents. Or if you’re far from the Bay Area, there is an excellent weekly e-newsletter that links to all the main stories.


The sacred meets the profound in a rite of passage

By Sue Fishkoff

I’ve always been fascinated by rituals. Maybe it’s because I’ve been through so few — no bat mitzvah, no prom (not cool, it was the ’70s), no graduation (’70s again), no wedding. Nothing sacred to mark the passage from one state of being, one phase of life, to another.

Well, that’s not entirely true. There was my conversion ceremony, that magical day when I dunked in the mikvah and joined the tribe.

At least, it should have been magical. Instead, it was odd, somewhat sad, but also kind of funny.

It was the summer of 1977, and I’d spent months studying the laws of kashrut and marking up my copy of Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin’s classic, “To Be a Jew.” I was 19, had spent a year on kibbutz, finished two Hebrew ulpans, milked hundreds of cows, and knew I wanted to formalize the connection I’d always felt to my father’s people.

The monumental day arrived, an August scorcher like you don’t know from in the Bay Area. I showed up at the run-down Orthodox mikvah in Perth Amboy, N.J. and stood in a darkened room while three long-bearded rabbis from Brooklyn quizzed me about traif, asked me why God gave the Torah to Moses and not to Noah or Abraham (a trick question, you have to know the answer going in), and tested my Hebrew.

An antiquated air-conditioner sputtered noisily in the corner. One of the rabbis barely spoke English. I would have giggled if I weren’t so petrified.

I passed — everyone does, apparently — and was shunted off to the changing room where I disrobed, cleaned myself and stepped into the fetid enclosure that passed for a ritual bath. An elderly woman squinted at me and told me to get in the water, quick, quick, the rabbis were coming.

The rabbis were coming? Wait a sec, I’m naked here! I scrambled down the steps and hunched over in the water, folding my arms over my breasts as the mikvah lady growled at me to take my hands away and let the water touch every part of my body. Oh boy, oh boy.

Suddenly she threw a wet washcloth on my head, the rabbis stepped behind a screen to my right, one of them mumbled a prayer, and the mikvah lady hissed at me to dunk.

Down I went, and up I came. More mumbling, more hissing, down again and up again. Then once more — mumble, hiss, down, up. And I was a Jew. No muss, no fuss, dry yourself off and out the door.

In the parking lot, the sunlight nearly blinded me — was it God’s blessing pouring down upon my head? Or just summer in New Jersey?

Again, no Champagne toast, no lifting of chairs, no kicking up of heels in a wild hora. Just me and Aunt Joan grabbing a tuna fish sandwich at the local diner.

Deprived of what should have been a glorious occasion, I decided that my next Jewish step would be marked with the proper solemnity. I was going to have an adult bat mitzvah. And I was going to don a tallit.

Here’s the thing with me and the tallit: I’m all about egalitarianism in shul. I feel uncomfortable behind a mechitzah. I like a woman’s voice leading services. I like being called up to the Torah. But I always declined the prayer shawl. I felt I hadn’t earned the right to wear it.

I was going to wait for my bat mitzvah and do it right. I was going to bask in the ritual.

Then last fall I was invited to be the scholar-in-residence at a Conservative synagogue in Florida. During Shabbat services, I was called up to the Torah, and there was the gabbai smiling and holding out a tallit for me.

I paused, then blurted out, “I’ve never worn a tallit before.” The gabbai hesitated. The congregation fell silent.

I took a deep breath, thought about my carefully laid plans and brushed them aside. How could I offend my hosts? Why was I being so arrogant? I took the shawl, said the prayer, kissed the fringes, and draped it carefully over my shoulders.

And I burst into tears.

Sometimes sacred moments just happen.

Walls, stones and what is sacred

January 22, 2012

I’m a writer and I swim in words. But occasionally, there is an image that expresses things better than any words I could write.

When I was in Israel back in November, I took several photographs of the stones of the Western Wall because I loved all the textures and colors. It’s a classic image; I thought it might be useful sometime for this blog.

Then, as I wrote about in an earlier post, we walked a few hundred steps outside the Old City to the disputed Arab neighborhood of Silwan. And this is what I saw:

Photo by Ilana DeBare

Photo by Ilana DeBare

When I squinted my eyes, those images blurred and became the same — both patchworks of textured white stone.

One was the Wall, the most sacred site in Judaism. The other was a workaday Palestinian neighborhood.

The Torah portion for my Bat Mitzvah service almost a year ago concerned construction of the Tabernacle, and I talked about how places — official “sacred” places, places in wild nature, other kinds of places and settings — can help us get in touch with the spiritual part of ourselves.

But physical places can also become idols, false gods.

I understand how, for many people, the Western Wall is a sacred place. But what those photos say to me is that living communities — the people in them, no matter the nationality or religion — are equally sacred.

To me, the people of Israel and Palestine will always be worth more than any particular place. No stone wall is worth a human life, no matter how many thousands of years of Jewish history it embodies. No olive tree is worth a human life, no matter how many generations of Palestinian family tradition it represents.

That’s the basis of the land-for-peace concept, the basis of a two-state solution. Both Israelis and Palestinians must give up some places that are precious to them in order to save lives that are ultimately more precious.

With right-wingers like Netanyahu and Lieberman running the Israeli government, and the rejectionists of Hamas tying the hands of Palestinian moderates, that solution seems almost impossibly distant these days.

But governments can change — maybe Israel’s will. And perhaps a more open Israeli government will spark a parallel openness among Palestinians. What we can do, in the meantime, is keep reminding ourselves and our leaders that human lives are more sacred than any walls, trees or stones. That’s why I support groups like J Street and Americans for Peace Now.

There! It just took me 379 words to deliver this preachy message.

When really, all it takes is looking at those two images.

Sodom — the sin is not what you think it is

November 11, 2011

Blogger Reb Jeff (alias Rabbi Jeff Goldwasser of Congregation Beit Ha Yam in Stuart, Florida) had a post today that I really liked, so I thought I’d share it with you. You can find the original and the rest of his insightful, inspiring blog at Reb Jeff. (P.S. I added the photo.)

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Vayera: The Children of Sodom

I don’t usually talk about politics on the pulpit. In general, it strikes me as arrogant to claim to know “the Jewish position” on any policy choice our society faces. The rabbis of the Talmud could not agree with each other on the issues of their own day, so how can we imagine that we know what positions they would take on immigration reform, tax policy or gun control? Yet, even if Judaism cannot dictate specific policies, Judaism can teach us values that will guide us as we struggle to find the best way to shape our society.

This week’s Torah portion (Vayera), I believe, has something important to say to us about the values we apply when weighing the needs of the individual against the needs of society as a whole. There are lessons for us in the Torah about the way we think about wealth and its obligations.

We are presented this week with the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. In Christian tradition, the sin of Sodom is identified with sexual transgression. However, in Judaism, the emphasis is quite different. In forming their interpretation of the story, the rabbis read a passage from the prophet Ezekiel:

Behold, this was the sin of your sister, Sodom—arrogance! She and her daughters had their fill of bread and untroubled contentment. Yet, she did not support the poor and needy. In their haughtiness they committed abomination before Me. That is why I took them away when I saw it. (Ezekiel 16:49-50)

To the rabbis, the sin of the Sodomites was not sodomy, as it is in Christianity. Rather, it was the sin of haughty greed. The rabbis embellished this image of Sodom and Gomorrah with midrashic legends about their selfishness:

After a while, travelers avoided these cities, but if some poor devil was betrayed occasionally into entering them, they would give him gold and silver, but never any food, so that he was bound to die of starvation.  Once he was dead, the residents of the city came and took back the marked gold and silver which they had given him, and they would quarrel about the distribution of his clothes, for they would bury him naked.(Ginsburg, Legends of the Jews, 1:247).

Photo by

It should be painfully obvious how to apply this teaching to our own society. We, in the contemporary developed nations, are living in the most affluent society the world has ever known. The comfortable among us toss around miraculous electronic gadgets as if they were toys (I’m typing on one right now), and we are so used to the luxuries of modern life that we have come to think of them as necessities. Yet, we live oblivious to the poverty next door to us.

In the relatively affluent Florida county where I live, almost 15% of the population is at or below the poverty line. Almost 30% of children live in poverty. Thousands in our community live with hunger as a daily experience in the midst of wealth that would have made the pharaohs blush. Across North America, you do not have to go far to find today’s Sodoms.

The rabbis teach in the Mishnah (Avot 5:10) that there are four types of people: the ordinary people who say, “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours,” the foolish people who say, “What is mine is yours, and what is yours is mine,” the pious people who say, “What is mine is yours, and what is yours is yours,” and the wicked people who say, “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is mine.”

Which of these four is the type we would find in Sodom? One might be tempted to say that it is the fourth type—the wicked people who lay claim to everyone’s possessions. Curiously, though, the Mishnah says that it is the first type—the ordinary sort of people who neither share what is theirs nor claim what belongs to others. What is wrong with that kind of “ordinary” thinking?

Our society did not become a place where real poverty and extreme wealth live side-by-side because of rapacious robber barons. Rather, we are a society shaped by the ordinary behaviors of people who believe they are entitled to keep what is theirs and “let everyone else do the same.” It is this attitude that is the recipe for Sodom. In such a society, the prevailing rule becomes “each man for himself” and the prevailing attitude toward the poor becomes “they have none to blame but themselves.” Such ordinary, common evil is what the rabbis so much wanted to warn us against.

I cannot claim that Jewish tradition has specific policies to recommend to us for the creation of a more open-hearted and caring society. After all, there is no prescription in the Torah for the right tax code or the right welfare policy for our times. However, I can say that the rabbis have warned us against building a society on policies that focus more on property rights than on the obligation to care for each other. I ask you to think about the way that contemporary politics puts so much emphasis on keeping the hands of government off of the wealth of the wealthy, and so little emphasis on the immorality of allowing people to go hungry. When you do, consider that we have become the children of Sodom.

A Jewish lay chaplain

October 27, 2011

A female, Jewish, lay chaplain at our local hospital? Who knew?

I’d never given much thought to chaplains one way or the other. Fortunately I’ve spent very little time in hospitals — much less in prisons or the military — and the word chaplain conjured up images of a middle-aged Christian man, someone like Father Mulcahy in MASH.

So I was intrigued when the editor of our temple bulletin approached me during high holiday services and asked if I’d like to interview a young woman in the congregation who is working as a chaplain at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center.

Jennifer Mahru

Jennifer Mahru, 33, is one of only seven participants in an intensive, year-long, on-the-job chaplaincy training program at Alta Bates Summit. It turns out that Jewish chaplains are pretty common. But lay chaplains like Mahru — who are not ordained clergy — are very unusual.

Mahru, inspired by her relationship with Temple Sinai‘s recently-retired Rabbi Steven Chester, had initially considered enrolling in rabbinical school. But she didn’t want to leave the Bay Area. And she realized that the parts of rabbinic work that spoke most deeply to her – pastoral work and counseling – could also be done as a hospital chaplain.

“I wanted to be there for people when they most need it, when they are vulnerable or ethically challenged,” she said.

Alta Bates chose Mahru from among 65 applicants for the training program, apparently on the strength of her experience as a hospice volunteer at the Jewish Home of San Francisco and her plans to go to graduate school in theology next year.

Mahru works a 40-hour week, assigned to different hospital units, and is on call for 24 hours every week or two. She gets called in for any death in her unit, even if the family doesn’t specifically request a chaplain. As a trainee, she meets weekly with an experienced chaplain supervisor and takes part in lectures and case study discussions with her fellow trainees.

Barely two months into her chaplaincy, Mahru already has enough stories to fill a book – patients who are furious or terrified about facing the end of life, others who simply want a friendly chat, nurses who need to grieve about a death on their ward. She ministers to people of all religions, whoever is in her assigned unit on a given day.

With non-Jewish patients, Mahru introduces herself as “one of the chaplains” and doesn’t mention her Judaism unless asked. If patients want her to pray with them, she does so in language that doesn’t compromise her own beliefs. If patients ask for clergy from their own faith, she arranges for that.

“Part of the challenge of clinical pastoral education is learning where you draw the line,” she said. “A Catholic patient may want to say the Our Father and Hail Mary, but I won’t say those words if they aren’t real for me.”

“I don’t have the right to tell anyone that their beliefs are wrong,” she continued. “If they say, “I’m going to hell because I sinned,’ I don’t tell them ‘There’s no such thing as hell.’ “I go with what they’re feeling, which is regret. I may ask them, ‘What are you regretful about?’ Or ‘It sounds like you’re in a really tough space right now. Do you want to tell me why you’re so upset?”

Most of the time, Mahru’s non-Jewish patients are delighted to have her there. One day may find her sitting with a bereaved Hindu family as they sing hymns in a language she didn’t understand. Another may find her accompanying a Catholic priest as he baptizes a baby in the neonatal intensive care unit. Sometimes, though, there are moments of friction.

Once Mahru was praying together with an evangelical Christian woman who asked, “How come you don’t pray in Jesus’ name?”

“We all pray differently,” Mahru said. “Prayer can be helpful no matter what words you use.”

“Not unless you are praying to the real and true God,” the woman responded.

So far, Mahru’s biggest struggle is not with skeptical patients but with her own self-judgment:

“I struggle with thinking, ‘Was my visit good?’ But I’m learning that, a lot of the time, you don’t know that. And you’re not going to know that. You can have a visit that is not so spectacular, but a patient looks back on it months later and feels like it made a diffeernce. There’s no instant gratification. You have to be secure that what you offered was enough. That’s my biggest challenge, because we want people to praise us.”

Her reward is the opportunity to support people as they confront questions of mortality and vulnerability that are often shunted aside in daily life.

“Being in the hospital brings up a lot of emotions for people,” Mahru said. “They’re scared, they feel feel like they’ve lost control over their body, they’re alone…. We live in a society that likes to fix things. Being with these people means going into scary places we don’t usually want to go.”

Nitzavim and Yom Kippur

October 5, 2011

The traditional Torah reading for Yom Kippur morning is a section from Leviticus that involves the details of ritual sacrifice at the Temple in Jerusalem. But the 19th century pioneers of Reform Judaism felt this was irrelevant to modern life and humanistic religion, and substituted a different passage — Nitzavim, or Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20.

This is the passage that I’ll be chanting on Saturday morning. (Well, the first part of it — Deuteronomy 29:9 through 29:14.)

Moses would have given his farewell address near here - view of Dead Sea from Mt. Nebo (Jordan) / Photo by David Bjorgen

Nitzavim presents Moses’ farewell address to the Jewish people, as he readies them to enter the promised land without him. He reminds everyone gathered before him that they have entered into a covenant with God. He recounts the “detestable things” and “fetishes” they left behind in Egypt, and predicts that some of them will succumb to the temptations of idolatry, thinking “I shall be safe, though I follow my own willful heart.” He warns them that they will be punished and exiled — but if they repent and return to following the mitzvot, God will welcome them back and return them to prosperity.

I suspect there’s some historical backstory here — that this section of the Torah was written at a time when the Jews were returning from exile in Babylon, and the author may have intended to explain the exile and exhort the people to better behavior. I haven’t done the research on this, so please jump in and correct or amplify if you know more.

But historical analysis aside, it’s a fitting portion for Yom Kippur in its focus on the dangers of sin and the rewards of teshuvah (which translates as turning, or repentance). And the image of  Moses speaking before the entire community of Israel — old and young, the portion tells us, men and women, officials and strangers, even the humble wood-hewers and water-drawers — is appropriate for the only day of the year when every single member of a Jewish congregation shows up for services.

There are two parts of the portion that I find particularly moving.

The first is a line that I’ll be chanting, where Moses tells the assembled multitude that the covenant is “not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day.”

It feels almost like science fiction, some wormhole or rip in time that allows Moses to speak simultaneously to all Jews through the centuries. The covenant includes those not present because they have died, and those not present because they are not yet born. It gives me a shivery transcendent feeling — I’m part of this stream that extends back to Abraham and forward as long as there is a Judaism.

My grandparents who have passed away are part of it. The great-great-great-grandparents whose names I don’t even know are part of it. My daughter’s unimaginable grandchildren are part of it.  For a moment we are all here together, standing near Mt. Nebo listening to Moses.

The other line I particularly like comes later in the portion, when Moses reassures the gathered populace that they can, in fact, fulfill their end of the covenant.

Surely, this instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.

I find this a  comforting way to think about other challenges, not just the challenge of leading a moral and righteous life.

It’s so easy to paralyze ourselves by thinking, “That’s too much! I can never do that!” These days I’m having those kinds of despairing thoughts about the ten extra pounds I’ve put on: “How will I ever be able to lose that weight?” And those thoughts are a constant presence around my novel writing: “I’ll never be able to get that character right! I’ll never do decent dialogue! I’ll never be able to write like XXX or YYY!”

But in reality, a surprising number of the things that cause us despair are not beyond us. They are not in the heavens, they are not across the ocean. Sometimes we just need to calm ourselves down — take things step by step, piece by piece, or, in Anne Lamott’s phrase, bird by bird.

It is not too baffling for us, it is not beyond reach. The answers are close to us, in our mouths and hearts.