Generous in Love

generous-in-love-o-donohueAlways be ready for love. It’s all around us. We just need to lift up our eyes and open our hearts. Yes, sometimes love disappoints or even hurts. Unrequited love, betrayed love or broken love may engrave deep scars. Longing for unconditional love, sometimes the best we get is disappointingly conditional. But we go on. Why? Because only a world shaped by love is a world that can be redeemed.

Love figures prominently in this week’s parasha, Chaye Sarah. Abraham loses the love of his life – his soul mate and fellow journeyer. Isaac grieves the loss of his beloved mother. But the quest for love endures. Abraham remarries. He also sends his servant, Eliezer, to find a bride for his son. Wouldn’t many a parent today like to engage a matchmaker to marry off their adult child?! Abraham provides no prerequisites only that the bride come from the land of his birth. It is Eliezer who opens his heart to the SOURCE OF LOVE and discovers Rebecca, a gracious, generous, and kind woman. In a moment he knows that this water drawer, this life giver, is the right person for Isaac. Can or will Isaac feel the same? We wait on the edge of our seats.

The Torah suggests that it is love at first sight, but the commentators do not all agree. Consider the newlyweds’ homecoming:” “And Isaac brought her into the tent of Sarah his mother; he married Rebecca, she became his wife and he loved her; and thus was Isaac consoled after his mother”(Genesis 24:67). Maimonides suggests: “[Isaac] found consolation only through his love for his wife,” and that his love was inspired by Rebecca’s righteousness and good deeds, the primary criteria upon which the Torah bases the love between husband and wife”. Rivka Olenick, reflecting on the commentary of Nachmonides, suggests that the love and respect Isaac had for his mother he has for Rebecca. Today, this verse has provided fodder for therapists with theories about why some people look for mates who are just like a parent. Nevertheless, Rebecca has the capacity to help Isaac heal both from the trauma with his father and the loss of his beloved mother.

Love continues to endure, but for so many it feels elusive or even impossible. The quest itself for so many people of every age may be fraught with disappointment and pain.   If our community is to continue and flourish, we need to open our hearts to one another and do everything we can to nurture healthy, loving relationships – be they between parents and children, new and old friends, neighbors, soul mates, lovers young and old.

Life does not come with guarantees, but it does come with possibilities. It is our on-going spiritual work to remove the shells of bitterness that harden our hearts, preventing love from streaming in or flowing out. Love takes practice and is itself a practice. We can practice sending loving thoughts even to those we may not be inclined to love or to those for whom we feel indifference. One may never know how this practice of loving impacts the world, but it does.

Shabbat is a perfect time for renewing love by reconnecting with family, friends and community. Shabbat can be a respite from loneliness, offering both divine and human embrace. Life does not come with guarantees, but it does come with possibilities. It is our spiritual work to clear our hearts of bitterness and remove the hardened shells which form. In doing so, love becomes a practice. Giving love generously, we invite love.

Shabbat Shalom.

Nina J. Mizrahi, Community Rabbi

 

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Food for thought

Enjoy this selection of inspiring Thanksgiving quotes, prayers and engaging ideas.  Plus, an invitation to share  your thanksgiving thoughts!

thanksgiving-blessingsMay you experience each day 

as a sacred gift woven around the heart of wonder.” John O’Donohue

todah“Blessed be the gifts you never notice,

your health, eyes to behold the world,

thoughts to countenance the unknown,

memory to harvest vanished days,

your heart to feel the world’s waves,

your breath to breathe the nourishment

of distance made intimate by earth.”     John O’Donohue

gratitude-is-heart-memory“Keep something beautiful in your heart

to survive difficult times and enjoy good times.”   John O’Donohue

thanksgiving-jewish-heritageBlessings: before & after eating!

Blessing over bread, before eating (or create your own!)

Humanistic Version

I/We appreciate this bread which is before me/us. It stands as a symbol of all food brought forth from the earth and the human strength and creativity which molds it. For bread does not sprout from the earth finished, it is only with human innovation that it is created. I/We appreciate the gifts of the earth and the human intelligence and hard work which sustain me/us.

Theistic Version

I/We appreciate this bread which is before me/us. It stands as a symbol of all food which the Source of Life brings forth from the earth and the human strength and creativity which molds it. For bread does not sprout from the earth finished, it is only through a sacred partnership between humanity and the Divine that it is created. I/We appreciate the gifts of the earth given to us by the Origin of All Sustenance and the human intelligence and hard work which sustain me/us.  

Blessing after eating (or create your own!)

Birkat hamazon is the blessing we recite after meals.  The idea of making birkat hamazon is rooted in a verse of Torah: “And you shall eat and you shall be satisfied. And you shall bless Adonai, your God, for the good land he has given you” (Deuteronomy 8:10).  This teaches us that it is easy to recite a blessing when we are hungry.  When we are sated, we might take our bounty for granted.

A one-line version of this prayer is in Aramaic:

Brich rachamana malka d’alma ma’arey d’hai pita 

Blessed is the merciful one, ruler of the world, creator of this bread.

thanksgiving-games-table-gameThanksgiving table game

What other questions might enrich your table conversation?

thankful-pumpkins  Share what thanksgiving means to you this year?  What challenges your ability to feel gratitude?  How might you deepen your capacity for gratitude?  What is your recipe for thanksgiving?

cornucopiaHAPPY THANKSGIVING!

Nina J. Mizrahi, Community Rabbi

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Harnessing Holiness

eyes-jigsawSeeing Possibility

This week’s parasha begins, “Vayera eilav YHVH …”, “And YHVH appeared/was seen” (Genesis 18:1). Incident after incident throughout the parasha involves people seeing or not seeing God – all around us. From this it is taught that Abraham shows true humanity because he truly sees the potential for harnessing holiness when he is aware of what is going on around him.

Through Abraham, the following sacred obligations have been given to us as an inheritance. Each opportunity for person-to-person connection is a call to the angel within and an affirmation that community is yet another expression of godliness.

Sostegno e aiuto a persone anzianeVisiting the sick – Hebrew: Bikur Cholim      

The rabbis tell us that the Holy One visited Abraham when he was recovering from his circumcision (Genesis 18:1; BT Sota, 14a). While such a visit may not change the course of one’s illness, it may ease physical and emotional distress. The very presence of a caring person can provide comfort and even help assuage the fears of the one who is suffering. Through the practice of visiting the sick, we bring more compassion into the world.

There is tremendous emotional and physical stress these days. How many people in our society feel invisible or forgotten? The elderly, the infirm, the divorced, the displaced, the disabled often live in emotional, physical and spiritual isolation. What will it take for us to open our hearts with radical welcoming? Can we set aside our own fears in order to reach out to others? This can take many forms – inviting folks for dinner, especially Shabbat dinner; visiting people who are shut-in; reaching out with a smile, a kind word to indicate that we are present for others because we are diminished when others are intentionally or unintentionally excluded. In my fifth week post-surgery, I can attest first-hand to the power of visits. They helped me stay connected during these long weeks of being housebound, when I felt most isolated.

Bikur cholim may also prime us to act on the politics and business of healthcare. Fear about the future of affordable healthcare is rising, especially for those with pre-existing conditions. We are taught not to abandon those who suffer, but rather to look after them with great compassion. Our vigilance in fighting the on-going battle to provide access to quality and affordable healthcare is also an act of justice – one that saves lives and ensures that those in need can live and die with dignity.

hospitality-home-10 Hospitality to strangers – Hebrew: Hachnasat Orchim

Abraham, in the midst of God’s visit, sees three strangers approaching his tent and turns his full attention to greet them with consideration and graciousness (Genesis 18:1-8). Of note is the focus on Abrahams’ speediness in attending to his guests’ needs, including personally preparing their food.   From this the rabbis teach, “Hospitality to wayfarers is greater than welcoming the Divine Presence: (BT Shab. 127a). Aaron of Karlin taught that when we turn our attention from Godly matters to human matters, we engage in sacred doing. The Holy One is not pleased when our focus on the Divine becomes exclusive, leading us to ignore the needs of human beings ( p.99).

How many people in our country are victims of xenophobic hostility? Hospitality, then, extends from the individual to the communal to the national realms. What can we do to keeps these doors open? Becoming educated about immigration-related issues and policy, working on behalf of immigrants who seek refuge in our country, sustaining sanctuary cities, and opening our houses of worship and our homes send a strong message of welcome.

courage-quote Courage – Hebrew: Ometz Lev

In the Story of Sodom and Gomorrah, even as the Holy One informs Abraham of his decision to destroy these cities on account of the lawlessness of the people, Abraham pleads on behalf of the innocent. Abraham sees the good within a sea of wickedness and feels compelled to challenge God, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” (Genesis 18:25).   Abraham, seeing the righteous within a sea of wickedness, is compelled to challenge God on their behalf.

In all three instances, Abraham’s action is focused on building community and demonstrating humanity. We, too, as children of Abraham, should be courageous in building relationships with each other and wise in understanding how these relationships effect and reverberate on a familial, communal and national level.

This post-election time has proven difficult on many fronts. There is polarization and even isolation within our communities. Tempting as it is to fall into despair or focus on the actualization of our fears, we have a responsibility to pursue justice – in small ways and in broader ways; through political action and through forging connections with our neighbors; through working to find common ground and shared values.

Ometz lev literally means an “effort of the heart,” and it is that very courageous effort that must pull us forward out of the darkness of what feels like a time of lawlessness. We must challenge ourselves to be brave and unrelenting in the face of destructive forces. This will not happen if we become immobilized as a result of becoming imprisoned by our obsession with following social media, some of which contains false or misleading information, that incapacitates us and fills us with by undirected anger, fear, or a feeling of powerlessness.

Humor combined with courage is proving to be healing and empowering. Consider the actions of those fighting for reproductive rights by donating to Planned Parenthood in “honor of Mike Pence,” sending Chanukah books to Steve Bannon to underscore the sacred fight for religious freedom, the “Pantsuit Nation” organizing a million women march in January, and even late night t.v., using humor to shed light on the dangerous beliefs and hateful behaviors of many white Americans.

linkbuildingchainConnecting

Abraham could have shut himself in, isolating himself during his recovery. Instead, he placed himself in a tent open on all sides, looking for how he might invite people into a way of compassionate, courageous and just living. May the lessons we learn from Abraham lead us to make choices from a sacred place that reflects our deepest humanity. Then and only then will the angels of peace (Mal’achei ha-shalom) reign, bringing us hope for a better tomorrow.

Nina J. Mizrahi, Community Rabbi

 

Sojourners for Justice

soul-journey

This Shabbat we read Parashat Lech Lecha, a portion well known for its lessons about journeys. Its juxtaposition to the elections provides hope that we need not be stuck where we do not want to be.

These times have brought great travail, disappointment, fear and a deep sense of insecurity about the coming years. We stand today as a nation divided, wondering about our collective future as Jews and as members in a range of other communities where we have grown roots.

Lecha Lecha beckons us to become sojourners for justice, joined together by a vision of what we might explore and build together.  We take our first step without having firmed up all the details. We will figure them out along the way.  Listening to and heeding the journey-call, step-by-step, we embark on a sojourn for justice.

In a poem about the parasha, Andrea Weiss  writes (p.82):

“Go forth on a journey.

Go by yourself:

Standing at a crossroads

You venture from the known to the unknown.

Some journeys must be made alone.”

The language of journey – especially spiritual journey – has become more commonplace. Yet, when asked, most people are unclear about the path or the destination of their journey. Rabbi Shefa Gold suggests that a spiritual journey is about “the soul’s path to awakening” which, through a series of stages, leads to the maturation of the soul (Pp.30-33).   For her, facing the challenge of each stage leads to a blessing for the sojourner. The following is another interpretation of these stages – one we might consider in light of where we find ourselves today – emotionally, spiritually, religiously, culturally, communally and as a nation.

Stage 1: Leaving – Abram leaves his home, his family and everything he has ever known in order to “become a blessing.” From the earliest moments of our lives, great attention is paid to the socialization process.   Sometimes we have to leave what we have socialized into in order to re-claim the parts of our selves that have been lost.

Stage 2: Disappointment – Shortly after setting out on his journey, Abram is faced with a famine that will alter the course of Jewish history. It causes Abram to depart from the land and go down to Egypt, where the Israelites would eventually be enslaved for 400 years. Growth journeys are often unpredictable, and challenge us to go inward to discover things about ourselves we might not otherwise have known.

Stage 3: Development –Abram has to become a warrior in order to redeem his captive nephew, Lot.   In responding to new situations, we can develop other parts of our selves and discover our ability to change, adapt and even flourish.

Stage 4: Initiation – After Abraham defeats the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah and rescues Lot, he receives a blessing from a foreign king, who links Abram to God by invoking El Elyon(the God Most High) through a blessing. Some moments in our lives open us to the possibility of receiving blessing from unexpected places.

Stage 5: Expansion – Abram looks to the stars to understand the breadth of God’s promise – that through Abram an entire nation will be born. When our vision becomes narrow and constricted, we, too, can restore hope by opening ourselves to the possibility of what might yet be.

Stage 6: Imagining for the future – Shortly after Abram’s question about what the future holds, Abram falls asleep and, through a vision, learns that the future holds both slavery and redemption for this nation.   In our waking hours we may be too engaged in our journey to see or experience anything beyond the immediate moment. In a dream state where time and space have no meaning, the whole of the journey can be seen. Recalling the dream and its vision can help move us from one moment to the next with purpose.

Stage 7: Covenant – As part of the covenant, Abram is told that he will be “the father of a multitude of nations” (Gen 17:4). God marks the promise of Abram’s future by changing his name to Abraham. Abraham, to represent the change within himself, seals the covenant upon his flesh through the physical sign of circumcision. We don’t talk much about the covenant these days, most likely because it challenges us with a singular vision of who or what God is. Perhaps a 21st century approach to brit/covenant can allow us to bind and feel bound to a set of values, ethics and relationships that invite the Divine into our lives. It can be viewed as a very personal act of transformation that serves as a powerful communal connection – for males and females.

Lech Lecha begins with the call to Abraham and Sarah to embark on a journey. During the course of this journey, each evolves as a human being with a vision and a purpose. That which begins as a personal journey develops into a journey toward a collective future. As when Abram becomes Avraham Avinu (Abraham our father) and Sarai becomes Sarah imanu (Sarah, our mother), we are also now poised to become that future.

We are the living promise of Abraham and Sarah’s future – a future that need not stop here.   Just like our ancestors, we have been given the “green light” to heed our journey-call, to walk our dreams and visions into reality, to sojourn for justice.

This Shabbat,  prepare to set out knowing you will face disappointments along the way.  Channel your inner warrior.  Open yourself to receiving blessings from the least likely sources.  Expand your vision and discover an ever broadening horizon.  Imagine a nation which honors diverse ways of believing and belonging.  And, in that sacred place, vow to create opportunities for all people to connect, engage and build a just society founded on kindness and respect.

For now, begin by looking inward and to one another for the courage to heed this journey-call.   Celebrate and exercise the precious gift of freedom as an inspiration  for reimagining a soul-driven, maximally inclusive nation. Prepare to take your first step into that future.

Bivracha,

Nina J. Mizrahi, Community Rabbi

Noah (2)Emerging, Renewing & Walking with Sacred Purpose

person-walking-outsideEmerging, Renewing and Walking with Sacred Purpose

As election day approaches, with the first female presidential candidate on the ballot , it is fitting that this d’var Torah on Parashat Noah, is guided by the commentary presented in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary (pp 36-46).  The editors associate the Noah story with transgression and Divine Response. We learn that it is human violence that prompts the unleashing of the flood. At the same time, Noah, the hero of his time, receives a covenant from God that promises the “immortality” of humankind.

One of the commentators (p. 37) suggests that the biblical flood is not primarily a punishment, but “a means of getting rid of the thoroughly polluted world and starting again with a well-washed one. The Flood represents a return to primeval chaos, with water breaking through all of the boundaries God created to form and protect the earth. Following the flood, “God remembered Noah (8:1). God begins to restore the world to order by reversing the direction of the waters. As is often the case, “remembering” connotes acting. The Flood reverses Creation, and the aftermath is a new Creation that recalls the Creation Story in Genesis 1. God promises, “Never again will I bring doom upon the world on account of what people do, though the human mind inclines to evil from youth onwards…As long as the world exists, planting and harvesting, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never end” (8:21-22).

The transgressions leading to the Flood transform God’s expectations. They result in new rules for guiding humankind and God’s promise of a perpetual covenant. These blessings and new directive signal a new beginning. The underlying values inherent in this covenant affirm that life is precious. Humankind is elevated because we were made in the tzelem – likeness of the Divine. This is immediately followed by restating the commandment from Genesis 1, “pru ur’vu – be fruitful and multiply,” emphasizing the on-going need for renewal.   The keshet – bow is transformed from a weapon to a symbol of peace (rainbow).

Imagine what it felt like to emerge from the Ark and take those first steps on the new Earth. Today, do we see beneath our feet the same holy ground Noah saw? God, as we know, “walked with Noah.” And, beginning with Abraham and Sarah, the Jewish people began walking with a sacred purpose. Every generation since is called upon to reflect on this same question, ” Before we take another step, are we choosing to walk through our lives with a renewed sense of sacred purpose?”

Nina J. Mizrahi, Community Rabbi

 

 

 

 

Noah(1):End violence and stop maelstrom flooding

flood-sign End violence and stop maelstrom flooding 

 The Torah tells us that the rains of the Flood had a purpose: to remove all corruption from the earth.   The Hebrew term used is mabul , which comes from the Hebrew verb, yabul, “to flow copiously and with some violence.”  These “waters upon the earth were no ordinary rains.” One commentary suggests that the falling waters were of celestial origin, probably referring to the upper part of the cosmic ocean (p.43).

The rainbow signifies God’s promise never to destroy the earth again  – by flooding waters.  Yet, rain remains a biblical indicator of Divine pleasure or displeasure with our behavior. In Deuteronomy 11:13-21 , the Torah teaches that when we serve the Creator “with all your heart and with all your being – then I will provide rain for your land on time, the early rain and the late rain…” In other words, our actions have Divine consequences.

A simple reading of the Torah warns us that rainfall is directly connected to our adherence to the sacred obligations, the ethical and moral actions laid out as part of the covenant at Sinai.  But the idea of a God sitting in judgment of our behavior, rewarding or punishing us through Divine intervention in nature, is problematic for many people. This has led to interpretation of this passage through the lens of climate activism. Consider the following translation offered by Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z”l:

God says to Israel: How good it will be when you really listen and hear my directions. . . . Your earthly needs will be met at the right time, appropriate to the season. You will reap what you planted for your delight and health. Also your animals will have ample feed. All of you will eat and be content.

 But be careful—watch out! Don’t let your cravings delude you. Don’t become alienated. Don’t let your cravings become your gods; don’t debase yourself to them. Because the God-sense within you will become distorted. Heaven will be shut to you. Grace will not descend. Earth will not yield her produce. Your rushing will destroy you, and Earth will not be able to recover her good balance in which God’s gifts manifest.

May these values of mine reside in your feelings and aspiration, . . . so you will be more aware. Then you and your children and their children will live . . . heavenly days right here on this earth.

Joe Rosenstein offers an alternative interpretation in his siddur, Eit Ratzon. If we lead a mindful life, “the rain that falls in your fields will also fall in your lives, enabling everything to grow. Your fields will be fruitful…and you will be fruitful in body and spirit… [Turning away from this heritage and way of life], you will also turn away from My rain; you will no longer be aware of this blessing and its source, so that, for you, the rain will no longer exist. You will be unable to fully enjoy the fruits of your fields or the fruits of your lives” (p. 52).

geshem In Hebrew, the root for rain (geshem) is gimmel-shin-mem.   The expression for bountiful, saturating rain is geshem b’racha – literally “rain of blessing.” The verb l’hagshim means, “to make it rain,” and implies making something happen, as in, “my dreams come true.”   Hasidism develops the connection between the human body and divinity by introducing the idea of avodah b’gashmiyut – the concept that devotion to the Source of Life takes places through physical activities such as dancing, singing and swaying in prayer. In this way, the human body actually becomes a living prayer which invites blessing into our lives.  An extended interpretation suggests that standing up and  speaking out about what we believe to be right and just is also a form of avodah b’gashmiyut.  

So here we have it  – the gentle life-nurturing rain, which invites the seeds of our dreams to take root in reality, or the violent maelstrom of the mabul sent to destroy a world filled with unfettered hatred and violent behavior – save only Noah and his family.   And a later biblical warning that our actions evoke Divine response  executed through nature as a form of reward or punishment  – depending on our fulfillment of the sacred obligations set before us.  A contemporary reading  about what happens when our actions cause global imbalance and wreck havoc on the natural world.  And an interpretation that moves from the literal to the metaphoric, from floods of destructive behavior to nurturing rain of blessing and life.

In only a few days, our country will exercise our right to participate in the democratic process of voting to select our governmental officials.   Politico magazine examines the 2016 election as a watershed moment for women and gender politics.  With grassroots organizers pushing the need for gender justice, feminist agendas have finally found a national platform.   But, so too are we witnessing the bubbling up of hateful attitudes rooted in racism, gender politics, religious intolerance and the like.  One wonders how these attitudes will impact social, religious and  economic issues post-election.

With this in mind, we pray that cravings for power will not delude and lead us to become alienated from one another.   We will sow what we plant – hopefully values which lead us to make the world a better, safer, more inclusive place for all.  Our children are watching us, learning from us – how we will transform our beliefs into lived actions and behaviors which will impact for generations to come.

Just as Noah was righteous in his generation, so, too, must each of us change the “climate” by transforming the rain of destruction, hatred, corruption and intolerance into geshem bracha – the blessed rain of healing, hope and renewed compassion for every human being.  This is the purpose of the sacred obligations transmitted through our tradition and heritage – Then [we] and [our] children and their children will live . . . heavenly days right here on this earth.

Nina J. Mizrahi, Community Rabbi