Now take the journey!

photo of an omer.jpgThe omer (Hebrew: עמר‎) is an ancient Israelite unit of dry measure used in the era of the Temple in Jerusalem. It is used in the Bible as an ancient unit of volume for grains and dry commodities, and the Torah mentions as being equal to one tenth of an ephah.

 

Passover is almost over. Out of town family has returned home. Seder 5776 will soon take its place as a memory. Our thoughts turn to putting the house back to pre-Passover “order”. We smile as some matzah crumbs fall from a haggadah as we put it back on the book shelf. Tablecloths are soaking – to remove the wine stains, when really we should leave them as a reminder of the aliveness around the Seder table. We think we are almost done – but we are actually entering a time of great possibility!

timetilsinaiAs our ancestors traveled through the wilderness to Sinai, we, too, journey by bringing mindful awareness to each of the 49 days between Passover, “Time of our liberation,” and Shavuot, “Time for giving our Torah.” “Counting the omer,” as it is called, requires a daily blessing and an announcement of the number of days into the journey.

The Count counting the omerCounting, in and of itself, is not necessarily transformative. Throughout the centuries, artists, spiritual leaders, writers, and assorted other folks have created omer counters which reflect creativity and invite engagement. At the end of this post, there are links to several examples available on-line.   Through making our counting mindful we connect these two festivals and recognize that there is meaning in the journey itself.

sinai sunriseOur spiritual and physical Passover preparations directed us to leave behind the constrictions of what created narrow mindedness and imposed boundaries. These seven weeks now invite us to make space for a life is expansive, grounded and growth-filled. While the unknown factors which define the journey may leave us feeling restless, unsure and uncomfortable, we can choose to use this time for healing and nourishing our emotional, spiritual, physical and ethical being. With each day, we create more space for receiving Torah in our lives – whether we accepted it as Divinely revealed, Divinely inspired or as metaphor. This timeless wisdom which instructs how to build a meaningful relationship with what is beyond us, within us and between us is offered to all – child and elder, woman and man, secular humanist, atheist and believer.

torahTorah is simultaneously ancient and contemporary. Each generation, in fact, every person receives its wisdom according to her or his ability. The mystics speak of two fires – the black fire of the letters and the white fire of the spaces in between the letters. Both illuminate. Both liberate the sacred from the profane. This is not to say one can simply read scripture like a novel, though it contains beautiful narratives. Rather, deep reading compels us to ask questions, and therein comes the expansiveness and brilliance of these teachings. For the questions pondered by one generation may differ from those of another generation. Or, as society evolves in its understanding of, for example, gender and sexual identity, we are asked to grapple with texts which challenge, frustrate and even offend. Especially during moments of social change such as we increasingly face, we are compelled to examine the questions raised and obligated to respond. We do this through deep thinking rooted in ethics that reflect the foundational teaching taught in the Book of Leviticus 19, which instructs us to, “Love your neighbor as yourselves.” This is Torah.

 

How, then, can we use these days and weeks to ready our souls spiritually for the sacred work at hand? Consider Psalm 90:12, “Teach us to account for our days that we may grow a heart of wisdom,” Living with such awareness reminds us of both the preciousness and uncertainty of life. The poet, Mary Oliver, puts it another way, “I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.”

May your journey prepare you for a richer, more engaged life of meaning and purpose.

My greeting to you: Moadim l’simcha – “ Appointed Festivals [are] for joy”,

To which you respond: Chagim uz’manim l’sason – “ [The] Festivals and times [are] for rejoicing!

Note: Yizkor (Memorial prayers) is recited in Reform synagogues tomorrow morning and on Saturday in traditional synagogues.

Tomorrow we all say, “Shabbat shalom”,

Rabbi Nina J. Mizrahi, Community Rabbi

28 April 2016/ 20 Nissan 5776

Omer Counters:

Homer Omer Counter (http://homercalendar.net/Welcome.html)

Interpretive omer counters created by artists (http://richardmcbee.com/writings/contemporary-jewish-art/item/counting )

The Mussar Institute’s spiritual growth counter   (http://mussarinstitute.org/emails/omer/2016day6.html

A farming, parenting and Jewish farming site: http://www.thelettuceedge.com/tag/counting-the-omer/

From Ritual Well: http://www.ritualwell.org/ritual/counting-omer-mindfulness-practice

From Mishkan Shalom: https://mishkan.org/count-the-omer-with-us-from-passover-to-shavuot

There are even apps – just google, “alternative omer counters.”

 

 

 

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Sweet, Sweet Memories

FullSizeRender

She’s coming!

She’s coming!

And beautiful, poignant memories fill my being.

Mother and daughter

Cleaning the kitchen together

Changing the dishes

Excitement filled the air.

All the time

Enjoying one another.

Every holiday was like this

Transforming the kitchen into sacred space

For years my job

Was to crack walnuts,

Pick out the nutmeats and,

Using the “hocker” and special wooden bowl,

Chop what felt like zillions of walnuts

(shelled walnuts were quite expensive then)

Dish after dish was prepared with such love

The table was set so beautifully.

Each year, mom would give me a dollar or two

And send me to the florist to see what I could buy

It was a mile walk there and back

From these flowers,

She would create a beautiful centerpiece

Filling in with cuttings from our property

Mom taught me about Hiddur mitzvah-

Making the fulfillment of a sacred obligation

As beautiful and joyful as possible

These are the sweet memories

That have sustained me through hard times

And which brought Judaism to life

This was the tradition we created

It wasn’t about gourmet food

Nor was it about which Hagaddah –

Of course we used the Maxwell House Haggadah

That we brought home from the grocery story

And with every wine stain or lingering matzah crumb

It took my family on a journey to freedom

That formed, connected and blessed us

This precious Torah of my mother.

 

Wishing you and those you hold dear a sweet and freeing Pesach,

Rabbi Nina J. Mizrahi, Community Rabbi

12 Nisan 5776/ 20 April 2016

The Mitzrayim of Dementia

Birds-Flying free

Mitzrayim, Egypt

Place of constriction

Narrow, confining

Where the heart barely beats

The soul gasps for air

The body depleted

Stuck in a dark past

Seventy-three years ago

A strong young man

On his eighteenth birthday

Signed up

A Jewish marine

Whatever we think we know about war

Does not come close to the reality

Clearing beaches in the South Pacific

Bloody as the first plague

These islands of paradise,

Hell in disguise

Yet, The Holy Essence was in this place

Waiting to be found

A mortar landed next to him

And did not explode

No one in his unit made it back

But he survived

His Guardian Angel, he says,

Made him a believer

Memories of the war still haunt him.

PTSD is a Pharaoh of Pharaohs

Seeking to enslave the very Source of Life

On the days he feels confused,

Disconnected from the present

He finds himself once again

held hostage

By the dark place of war

And the things he did

And the horrors he experienced

On those days, I try to rescue him

With memories of love and gratitude

while silently offering prayers for healing

Sometimes a quiet joy returns to his voice

We reminisce

He spins his tales

We stand at the shores of the sea

if only for a few moments

Singing of freedom

Loving one another

The constricted and open heart

Both part of

My father’s Torah.

 

Rabbi Nina J. Mizrahi, Community Rabbi

10 Nissan 5776/ 18 April 2016

 

 

The Blossoming of Possibility

 

tulipsDedicated to my daughter, Eve Michal Brickner, on her 26th birthday

This passed weekend, we entered into the Hebrew month of Nisan. In the Torah, Nisan is referred to as “HaChodesh HaRishon,” or the first month. God says to Moses and Aaron in the Land of Egypt, “this month shall be for you the beginning of the months; it shall be for you the first of the months of the year.” (Exodus 12:1-2) Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, the Ramban, a great thirteenth-century Spanish Jewish scholar, explained this passage: 

[T]his month should be counted first. …For the purpose of this month should be a commemoration of the Great Miracle. For every time we mention the months, the Miracle will be alluded to. It is for that reason that the months do not have names in the Torah, but rather they are identified by number… Thus, when we call the Month of Nisan “the first” and Tishrei “the seventh,” the meaning is the first with reference to the Redemption and the seventh with reference to it.

 The story of Redemption and the Exodus are spiritual landmarks in Jewish collective memory. It is the point from which everything else flows. It is also the moral and ethical marker for how we conduct ourselves in and out of our homes. Once slaves, we understand the crippling effect of oppression and therefore, we must not create or condone behavior that diminishes human dignity. Hence, our moral code emphasizes tzedakah as a sacred obligation to ensure that all people can live with dignity. This is not merely a way of exercising good, but a directive for maintaining justice in the world.

The name Nisan is of Babylonian-Persian origin, as are the names of all the twelve months in the Hebrew Calendar. It also suggests spring as a similar sounding Hebrew word, nitzan, means “a blossom.” This is a month dedicated to spiritual, ethical and environmental renewal. Traditionally, Rosh Chodesh Nisan was the day on which the Tabernacle—the temporary sanctuary used in the desert and in the early years of the Israelite settlement in the land of Israel—was inaugurated. The memory of the Tabernacle serves still as a reminder that we are of the Divine, entwined on the cellular and soul-ular levels. The Chasidim suggest that just as the Holy Essence walks in us, we walk within the Holy Essence. It is a fitting symbol that the Tabernacle was inaugurated in this month of renewal, when springs brings forth hope, joy and desire.

Passover begins on the fifteenth day of Nisan. It is actually the first of the three Pilgrimage holidays, Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot. In addition to this being the time of Zeman Herutenu, the time of our freedom, Passover is also the beginning of the spring harvest season in Israel. Passover, or Pesach, receives its name from the time when God “passed over” the houses of the Israelites when he was slaying the firstborn sons of Egypt. Passover is also called Chag HaAviv, spring festival. In this season marked by joy and rebirth, we recall, through the scope of Jewish time, not only the bitter experience of slavery, but the Redemption when we, like Israel’s harvest, grow new shoots of possibility, each sign of life a flowering promise for making our world a better place.

May this be a month of blessing, filled with life and peace, joy and gladness, salvation and consolation!

Shavuah tov – have a great week!

Rabbi Nina J. Mizrahi, Community Rabbi

11 April 2016/ 3 Nisan 5776

 

 

Fun Seders come in all shapes and sizes!

 

passover-seder-table-kids

Has one single moment ever reshaped or redirected the path of your life? Have you ever felt your heart shift from resignation to resistance, from despair to hope? There is such a turning point in the Exodus story.

Everything changes when the Israelites, no longer able to bear the burden of Pharaoh’s cruel treatment, cry out to God. The literary structure is beautiful. The Israelites cry out (va-nitz’ak) and in turn God hears their voice (va-yishma Adonai et Koleinu). “He saw our persecution, our toil, and our oppression” (Deuteronomy 26:7). The Chassidic Rebbe of Gur says: The sigh, the groan, and the crying out of the children of Israel from the slavery were the beginning of redemption. As long as they did not cry out against their own exile they were neither worthy nor ready for redemption. (A Different Night, p.89)

V’nitz’ak – so they cried out against their enslavement instead of allowing it to immobilize them. Their courage was aroused by a sense of injustice and a desire to be free. In this moment, the Israelites moved from resignation to resistance.

We, too, may find ourselves in our own Egypt – Mitzrayim, caught in a personal exile. We look to the Psalms for comfort. During the festivals we recite Hallel, Psalms 113-118, in praise and thanksgiving. One verse, found in Psalm 118:5, can help us find redemption and hope:

Min ha-mei-tzar ka-ra-ti YA; a-na-ni b’mer-chav YA

*YA is one of many names for God.

Having checked many sources, I discovered a range of translations for this verse. The following in my interpretive translation:

“Out of my Egypt – my place of constriction, with what felt like my very last breath, I cried out, ‘YA!’ YA responded by breathing into me, restoring spaciousness to my bodily, emotional and spiritual well-being.”

Redeemed from our own personal exile, we move more deeply into our spiritual preparations for Pesach, Passover. Pesach literally means pehsach, “the mouth (peh) talks (sach).” Around the world, sitting with family and friends representing many cultural and faith traditions, we will retell this story through questions, songs, blessings, texts, symbols and rituals.   We all follow a set order, seder (The Song About All the Parts of The Pesach Seder ).

To be as inclusive as possible, we make accommodations depending on whom is sitting around the table – for age, language (more or less Hebrew), culture (Sepahardi, Oriental, Askhenazi, etc), experience, interfaith (Seder Story in Song) etc.   This is done through the choice of haggadah (there are so many available!), how we set the table passover-seder-young-children-4-5-years ), the addition of new symbols to the seder plate to provoke discussion (free-trade coffee & chocolate, an orange, a tomato, etc. http://www.rac.org/seder-plate), multiple kinds of charoset (Italian charoset or google charoset), fun utubes (The Maccabeats – Les Misérables – Passover) melodies( utube has tons!) and so much more!

Pesach is one of the most inclusive and observed Jewish festivals. For some, it is about gathering family or reconstructing nostalgic memories. For others, it is a point of entry for redeeming the exploited in today’s world. It is an opportunity to transmit a rich heritage to our children and grandchildren. It doesn’t have to take hours – check out the three- minutes seder (3 minutes Passover seder ) or check out “The 30-minute Haggadah” (30 minute Seder ).

On the other hand, some folks enjoy using seder for deep and stimulating conversation. Invite participants to bring short quotes or questions that will stimulate fun and engaging discussion (http://www.templerodefshalom.org/passover-stir-up-your-seder/)

As you can see, the possibilities are endless. Most importantly, Pesach invites engagement. So many people are stuck in the constriction of feeling they don’t know enough to lead a seder or may never have led a seder before. It doesn’t matter where you begin – just give yourself permission to do it! And have fun making new memories!

May this Pesach instill you with the ometz lev (courage) to free yourself from all that enslaves you – from all that leaves you hopeless – from all that cuts you off from those you love. May this be a time for unburdening, healing, renewal and growth. As you embrace your freedom, may you in turn help to liberate those still enslaved, physically, emotionally and spiritually.

From my home to yours, David and I wish you and those you love a sweet and liberating Pesach!

Rabbi Nina J. Mizrahi

Pesach 5756/ April 2016