Kindness Overflowing

I Just came across the following piece I had written on Hesed – kindness.  It regrounded me  at a time when it is so easy to become consumed with anger.  I share this thought as an overflowing of my heart into yours.

Kindness is the overflowing of one’s self into the lives of others. (Anonymous)
As a little girl one of my favorite books was, Love Is a Special Way of Feeling,” by Joan Walsh Anglund. Little did I know until now that it is still on the list of “best books ever” for many people. This simple book has been passed down through the generations, still evoking warm, wonderful feelings through its words and illustrations. It shows us how to see love all us in our daily lives. If I were to rename the book, however, I might call it, “Love is a special way of doing.” This is because love is closely associated with acts of kindness. Each kindness we do for another, whether we know the person or not, makes our life better.

In Hebrew, the word for kindness is hesed. In Psalms we read that “the world is built of hesed” (Ps. 89:3). Hesed connotes an unconditional
love that flows from The Source of Love to us. With each act of kindness we do, this love streams through us into the hearts of others. An act of hesed can be spontaneous. It also emerges when our awareness of the needs of others stimulates our desire to help make that person’s life a little better.

 

Hesed is not limited by boundaries. It is only limited by the size and strength of our hearts and the generosity of our spirit. The rabbis teach that acts of kindness sustain the world, perhaps because they connect people to one another without expectation of reciprocation. And, that “the highest form of wisdom is kindness” (Talmud Berakhot 17a).

Nina J. Mizrahi, Community Rabbi

Pursue Justice

 

It began as a regular Friday night at the Great Lakes Recruit Training. About fourteen recruits, roughly half of whom were Jewish and the other half who had come out of curiosity, joined together to celebrate Shabbat. Instead of using the military prayerbook / siddur, published by the Jewish Welfare Board(JWB) Chaplains Council of the JCC Association, we used a special service compiled by the Religious Action Center(RAC), which is under the auspices of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the Union for Reform Judaism, with various affiliates.

For more than 50 years, the RAC has been the hub of Jewish social justice and legislative activity in Washington, D.C. Its goal is to “educate and mobilize the Reform Jewish community on legislative and societal concerns, advocating on more than 70 different issues, including economic justice, civil rights, and religious liberty… It is non-partisan and pursues public policies that reflect the Jewish values of social justice which are the core of Reform Judaism.” In memory of the important contribution made by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to the cause of civil rights, this particular Shabbat was designated as “Shabbat Tzedek” – the Sabbath of Justice.

Powerful words of the civil rights leaders, then and now, were incorporated into the service, connecting ancient and contemporary prophetic voices to the prayers. Following services, a recruit led us in Kiddush. Just as another recruit was about to recite Hamotzi, something extraordinary happened – in walked over 35 non-Jewish recruits! Their service had been cancelled, so they decided to join us. For most of them this was the first time meeting a rabbi and experiencing Jewish prayer and learning.

For the next 40 minutes this group of 18-22 year-olds engaged in a powerful conversation about civil rights, examining teachings from selected biblical, rabbinic and modern texts as they relate to civil rights. Recruits drew from personal experiences, including community organizing. When asked how one gets involved in community organizing, a recruit replied, “When you see a need, you just gather a bunch of people and get started!

Recruits spoke passionately on the topic of unity and what that means in the Navy, quoting the sailor’s creed: “I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America and I will obey the orders of those appointed over me. I represent the fighting spirit of the Navy and all who have gone before me to defend freedom and democracy around the world. I proudly serve my country’s Navy combat team with Honor, Courage and Commitment. I am committed to excellence and the fair treatment of all.”

As they spoke, I looked around the room and witnessed both the diversity and unity of this group of men and women. Diversity here means respecting individual differences in race, culture, age, ability, marital status, geographic region of origin, gender, religion, ethnicity, experiences, viewpoints, backgrounds and life experiences. This makes me wonder how this acceptance of diversity combined with a commitment to unity will influence their views when they return to civilian life? How will lessons learned and values internalized shape their vision for a bright future for all? Can we count of these young people to lead us in the on-going local, national and global fight for civil rights? Time will tell, but there is every reason to be hopeful.

The evening came to a close with the shehecheyanu – underscoring the specialness of this moment with a seemingly random group of recruits who convened for Shabbat Tzedek and became, for a ew moments, a unified community – a gathering of specific people who will go their separate ways at the end of the eight weeks of recruit training. Will they have a deeper understanding of the words in Deuteronomy (16:18): “Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof – Justice, justice you shall pursue, that you may live…”? What will be the long-term impact of learning that in the face of diversity we can hold on to our uniqueness and still share values and visions? Will it lead to organizing around justice? To the building of coalitions with others outside of our communities?

The evening came to a close with the shehecheyanu – underscoring the specialness of this moment with a seemingly random group of recruits who convened for Shabbat Tzedek and became, for a ew moments, a unified community – a gathering of specific people who will go their separate ways at the end of the eight weeks of recruit training. Will they have a deeper understanding of the words in Deuteronomy (16:18): “Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof – Justice, justice you shall pursue, that you may live…”? What will be the long-term impact of learning that in the face of diversity we can hold on to our uniqueness and still share values and visions? Will it lead to organizing around justice? To the building of coalitions with others outside of our communities?

Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “In Selma, Alabama, I learned to pray with my feet.” Then, and now – 50 years after Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s March on Washington – we, too, must pray through our actions. This means joining together and rerouting our anger from injustice to the pursuit of justice, that we might fulfill the words of the prophet, Micah: to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with the Holy One of Blessing. To this, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. proclaimed, “I have a dream…”. Five decades later, what will we bring to this dream?

Nina J. Mizrahi, Community Rabbi

Engage!

We are challenged to restore our nation to a unified people who can accept our differences and who support this great endeavor, democracy.  For guidance, we can look to the sages from the third century CE (common era) , who shared their wisdom in a compilation called, “Pirke Avot” (Ethics of the Fathers).  Facing ethical challenges even then, these sages reassure us, saying, “It is not incumbent upon you to finish the work, but neither are you to free to withdraw from it,” (Pirke Avot 2:21). You may not finish the task, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start.

unity This “work” of restoring our nation has several dimensions: spiritual, ethical and physical.  The spiritual dimension leads our hearts to seek meaning in our lives.  The ethical dimension roots this meaning between human beings.  The physical dimension  informs our actions.  Absent spiritual and ethical dimensions can lead to angry and destructive behavior.  As a result small mindedness is aroused that further creates obstacles for engaging meaningfully with others.  We must counter this small mindedness with expansive thinking and doing.

we the people.jpg  The intent and actions of every human being matter.  And once again, “We, the people…” – the citizens (as President Obama so eloquently and passionately reminded us tonight), are each called upon to become a dugma ishit (a personal example).  Through purposeful action, we follow the teaching of our sages, “Say little and do much” (Pirkei Avot 1:15). With a dugma ishit mindset of accountability, even the smallest exemplary action can make a difference.  And hope, Tikvah, reveals itself as an unwavering belief in the potential of every human being to help repair what is broken.

be-human-hillel  We begin by respecting the value of every human being – regardless of race, religion, gender or  sexual orientation – even if the choices they make differ from those we ourselves might make.  May compassion and generosity,  kindness and the pursuit of  righteousness be the sacred foundation upon which we build family, community, and nation.  In the absence of these great values, we will not be at our best.  Instead, we will have politics and the pursuit of power for one’s own gain.  Our very humanity will be at risk.  The sage, Hillel,  guides us, saying, “In a place where there is no humanity [or when  humanity is threatened], strive to be human.”

dali-lama May our spirit, ethics and actions keep our hearts open to one another, bring healing, hope and unity to this great nation.  May the elected officials honor the efforts of those who preceded them, even as they prepare to write the next chapter in our history.  And, may they and we serve in a manner that elevates us all.

Nina J. Mizrahi, Community Rabbi

When memory fades

memory-brain Aging has been on my mind a lot recently.  My mom is nearing 88 and my dad is now 92.   It is difficult living far away from them.  I’m sure mom will age in place, but I worry she will be isolated if she becomes house-bound.  Meanwhile, she is still out and about, meeting friends for lunch and ushering at cultural events.  When we were discussing my upcoming visit, I couldn’t resist asking her to cook a favorite dish for me.  She was so excited!  For as long as I can remember, it has been a tradition mom has always honored such requests for birthdays, home-comings and other special events.  A couple of days later, she told me she couldn’t recall how to make this particular dish.  I realized then how important it is that over the years I have been writing down these recipes, though it never occurred to me she would forget them herself.  She was so happy when I sent her the recipe.  There is something so wonderful about cooking for those we love – and enjoying what is cooked special for us!  This tempers some of my anxiety about checking in with dad.

memory-chip Dad lives at an assisted living facility.  Despite loss of hearing and vision, and living with dementia,  he has often expressed to me a sense of boredom.  Makes me wonder how many other folks facing these changes feel the same way.  I cherish the days, and they still exist, when dad is ready for a good conversation.  Mindfulness practice has been useful in helping me be in the moment, take it all in.  This is good because dad is not likely to recall the conversation.  Today was a really good day.  He seemed content – and thrilled not to be facing the bitter cold in Chicago.  Sometimes when he can’t recall something he tells me his “hard drive is full”!    Though there are plenty of days when dad doesn’t pick up when I call – mostly because he can’t hear – meaningful conversation is still possible and important for both of us.  Every once in a while I will hit on a question about which he has lots to say.  I have notes scribbled everywhere, all collected in a folder for my on-going effort to write up these stories as part of his “Torah” – the wisdom gleaned from the many stories he has told me about his life combined with my own memories.  I am working on my mom’s Torah as well.

Even though I did not grow up with grandparents, or maybe because I didn’t, recording memories has become very important.  All of us living in different states and continents(!) has made memory-making and memory-sharing challenging.   This especially as my daughter is readying herself for a move to New Zealand. At least she’ll be closer to my brother, who lives in Australia!  You get the picture.

This week, as  our the biblical patriarch, Jacob, nears the end of his life, his fragility and advanced age stands in sharp contrast to the man who once triumphed in a struggle with an angel.  This is especially poignant not only in light of my own parents, but also as 60 is rapidly approaching.  Someone once told me that the hardest thing about aging is that you don’t feel old inside.  It is just that your body is beginning to wear out.  So, when my dad told me how great he feels today, my heart was filled with gratitude and joy – as it is by the knowledge that mom is busy preparing a special meal for us.  Sure, tomorrow  could be a totally different story, but today is good.

wise-aging-lk-thumbnail-400x400 All of these experiences have raised my awareness and cultivated a desire to work with the aging – or the s-aging, as Reb Zalman taught.  Co-facilitating the Institute for Jewish Spirituality program, Wise Aging,” for men and women in their 50’s – 80’s continues to be personally growth inducing.  Through reflections shared and insights gained, we support and nurture   one another’s continuing growth.  This underscores the importance of community for people of every age and life stage.  This even for those in need of memory care.  And thus begins my adventure as part-time rabbi for a new community opening in the my area: Northbrook Inn Memory Care Community.  What an honor and privilege to provide spiritual care for the residents and their families, along with clergy from other faiths.

As we prepare for the opening celebration, we face the challenge of transforming a building into a home, a safe haven.  We need to make this a place where the residents are seen as viable human beings and not as people “suffering from” dementia.  Our fathers and mothers do not experience themselves  as”shells of their former selves.”  True, we may suffer from sadness and loss, but they deserve all the love and engagement possible.

Here is an excerpt from my words for the upcoming dedication:

mezuzzah-hand-touching “May this be a house of courage

Where frustration is met with patience,

Loneliness lessened by engagement.

A place where

Healing and growth are nurtured and

Where forgiveness prevails.

 

May this be a house of vitality,

Where,

Though words may be lost,

Communication abounds

Through music, art and creative expression.

A home where meaning

Fills the void

Of memories no longer accessible.

Additionally, as part of the opening celebration, I will offer words about the transformation of this new building into a safe, welcoming home for those needing memory care.

To those in the Northbrook, IL area: Whether you are a Jewish Communal Professional, clergy or someone concerned about serving those in need of memory care, I hope you will join me for the celebration and to learn more (invitation attached). The welcome and dedication will begin at 4:30pm.

Northbrook Inn Memory Care Community

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

4:00 – 7:00 pm

99 Pointe Drive

Northbrook, IL 60062

RSVP ASAP: (224)261-8352 or northbrookAA@koelschsenior.com

**Please share this information with anyone you think might also be interested in attending.

Thank you for your support!

And, may every journey bring blessing.

 

Shabbat shalom,

Nina J. Mizrahi, Community Rabbi

Good Times and Bad: This too shall pass

gam-zeh-yaavor-hebrew In 2009 I found myself wondering what Abraham Lincoln, Ben Bernanke & Bernanke have in common. As we prepare to enter 2017 the following story called to me once again.

One day, the wise King Solomon decided to test his most trusted minister, Benaiah ben Yehoyada.

Solomon: “Benaiah, there is a certain ring that I want you to bring to me. I wish to wear it for Pesach, which gives you six months to find it.”

Benaiah: “If it exists anywhere on earth, your majesty, I will find it and bring it to you, but what makes the ring so special?”

Solomon: “It has magic powers that can make a happy man sad and a sad man happy.”

Solomon knew no such ring existed in the world, but he wished to give his minister a little taste of humility. So he set about to find the ring. The seasons passed, fall and then winter… No ring.

On the day of erev Pesach, Benaiah was walking in one of poorest quarters of Jerusalem. He passed by a merchant who had begun to set out the day’s wares – rings and earrings and bracelets – on a shabby carpet.

Benaiah:    “Do you know of a magic ring that makes a happy man sad and a sad man happy?”

Merchant: “No!”

gam-zeh-hebrew-braceletSuddenly, as if by magic, the merchant’s father appeared. With an old knarled finger, Grandfather beckoned to Benaiah. As Benaiah watched, the grandfather took a plain gold ring from the carpet and engraved something on it.

Benaiah read the words on ring and smiled. Then he returned to Solomon.

King Solomon: “Well, have you found what I sent you after?”

All the ministers laughed. Solomon smiled. Then Benaiah held up small gold ring and exclaimed: “Here it is your majesty!”

When Solomon read the inscription, his smile vanished. The jeweler had inscribed three Hebrew letters on gold band: gimel, zayin, yud, for “Gam zeh ya’avor” — “This too shall pass.”

In 1859, Abraham Lincoln said these same words. In 2009, Ben Bernanke repeated them. And, standing on the edge of 2017, we find ourselves hoping and praying that, Gam Zeh Ya’avor – this too shall pass!”

There will be no immediate relief.   Yet, despite our fears that the entire world as we know it seems to be collapsing, remember that we have survived other times of destruction and loss.

human_folly_impermanence_time_deathSaying Gam Zeh Ya’avor in the midst of calamity gives us needed perspective, humility and strength to galvanize our communities and care for one another. Oddly enough, one does not only say, “this too shall pass,” during the bad times. We are taught to say it during the good times as well.

Gam Zeh Ya’avor is something that makes the sad man happy and the happy man sad.

Using the magic ring, Beniah taught Solomon that all his wisdom and fabulous wealth and tremendous power were but fleeting things, for one day he would be nothing but dust.

impermanence-cartoon-paradigm-shiftSaying Gam Zeh Ya’avor acknowledges the risks we take each day, which come with their intended or unintended consequences.   It requires us to accept responsibility for our actions despite the many other factors that may impact positively or negatively on our lives. It reminds us that we need ogam-zeh-yaavor-hebrewne another – in the good times and the not-so-good times.  

Wishing you and yours a year of insight, hope, and the strength to persevere.

Nina J. Mizrahi, Community Rabbi

 

An unimagined peace

Parashat Vayeishev: An unimagined peace

shalom-bayit Shalom Bayit – Peace in the home

Genesis captures the complexity of family dynamics –

The links and rifts that make their way through the generations.

Children struggle or thrive – because of or in spite of …

Everyone competes for love,

Feeling victorious or defeated

Even the seemingly oblivious.

“Israel loved Joseph more than all of his sons…” (Genesis 37:3).

Perhaps Ecclesiastes is right that

“there is nothing new under the sun (1:9)

We become lost in the stories we spin

At some point we leave our parents’ homes,

Taking our stories with us.

Whatever their hopes for us as a family,

Our parents ultimately depart this world

Bequeathing us unfinished family work

To repair rifts,

Build or rebuild trust,

Make peace.

But this is the child’s avodat ha-kodesh –sacred family work.

To reconcile with our siblings.

“[Joseph’s] brothers saw that their father loved him

more than all his brothers so they hated him”

A hate so deep that

“they could not speak with him peacefully” (37:3-4).

Yet the brothers ultimately build peace

out of the rubble of past deeds, as did Jacob and Esau.

These paradigms for reconciliation capture

the fear and pain of our secrets and conflicts,

Revealing that even estranged siblings

live in relationship with one another.

Will we choose to seek ways to infuse love into

the wreckage caused by fear, hate and envy?

Or make peace in the ways we can?

If not with the other, then with ourselves

An imperfect peace is better than no peace.

Though there is no “How to” manual,

We can discover resources from within to help us

Fill the cracks of what is broken,

Build something – anything – from the remains.

Joseph’s dreams caused trouble with his brothers

But his dreaming and ability to interpret dreams also

saved his family and our people

He taught us that while a dream may not be realized in our lifetime

Believing in the possibility of its fulfillment

can save and heal us in ways unimagined.

happiness-in-your-life-400x300Choosing to travel toward this beacon of promise

Frees us to live our lives with forgiveness, hope and love.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Urim Sameach (Happy Festival of Lights )

Nina J. Mizrahi, Community Rabbi

Wrestling Depression

feed-fearIn a state of terror

Jacob the dreamer also had his fears. After all, he did steal his brother’s blessing and then flee. Remember Esau’s piercing cry, “Bless me too, my father!”? Despite his blessing, Jacob also struggles. In this week’s parashah, Vayishlach, Jacob prepares to face Esau after all these years. He fears what Esau might do to him and his family. The night prior to this meeting, in a state of terror, Jacob has an encounter. He struggles with an unnamed man. An angel? Himself?

the-struggle-is-real                    Jacob struggled and prevailed

Whether this struggle was physical, psychological or divine, Jacob prevails and receives a new name to mark this transformational moment in his life. “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human and have prevailed” (Vayishlach, Genesis 32:29).Millions of people struggle with mental illness but do not prevail. Feeling hopeless and disconnected, they may succumb to bullying, addiction, PTSD, depression and bipolar disorder. Depression and bipolar mood disorders are real physical illnesses that often follow a cyclical course of ups and downs. Thoughts, body, energy and emotions are impacted. To make matters worse, these people, our family and friends, face stigma in the form of a belief that mental illness is a choice or a weakness.

struggle_of_mental_health  Suffering  and Stigma

Stigma is one of the main reasons why so many suffer in silence rather than ask for help. Recent campaigns to raise public awareness about this stigma include statements such as, “People suffering with depression think it’s their fault. Who in their right mind would think that!” “If you call in sick with the flu, you get sympathy. If you call in sick with depression, you get judged.” “Isn’t it insane how society diminishes people with mental illness?”

depression-sadnessRecognizing depression

It is time to stop the stigma, raise awareness and change attitudes. Thankfully, our loved ones are no longer locked up for life in dreary mental health institutions.  But that is not enough to address stage, shame and, of course, the need for lifelong treatment.  We need to envision wellness for people struggling with depression and bipolar disorder, Our support is essential in helping those with mental illness recover, manage their illness and thrive. “Mental health recovery is a journey of healing and transformation enabling a person with a mental health problem to live a meaningful life in a community of his or her choice while striving to achieve his or her full potential” (SAMSHA – The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration/ Mental Health services: SAMSHA – The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration/ Mental Health services

This d’var Torah is dedicated to those who suffer from mental illness. To you we offer our prayers. We vow never to forget all of those precious souls who did not prevail. Rather, we will honor your memory through our actions that others might prevail.

help-mental-illness     What else can we do?

Contribute to foundations such as “Rebecca’s Dream: Changing the Face of Depression”. Rebecca’s family believes the best way to honor her memory is to promote awareness and compassionate understanding of depression and bipolar disorder as real diseases. Rebecca understood that we must speak the truth about mental illness, no matter how difficult. Another action is to advocate for the promotion of health care integration. Or support  Mental Health America, which is committed to “promoting mental health as a critical part of overall wellness… [and advocating] for prevention services for all, early identification and intervention for those at risk, integrated services, care and treatment for those who need it, and recovery as the goal.”

hands-of-hope Bring hope

May we be like Jacob by wrestling the dark night of mental illness, that the dawn will bring healing, hope and light.  And that would be a blessing for all.

Shabbat Shalom!

Nina J. Mizrahi, Community Rabbi