The following is the D’var Torah reading from Lori Snow, past president of Congregation B’nai Jacob’s Sisterhood and current Mid-Atlantic Region Torah Fund Vice-President, during the Sisterhood Shabbat on April 15, 2016.

Sisterhood Shabbat, Friday, April 15, 2016 - Lori Snow

On behalf of our Sisterhood, I would like to welcome you to this year's Sisterhood Shabbat and thank you for joining us.  I would also like to thank Rabbi Sultar for his support in planning this evening and conducting our service.  In studying this week's Torah portion, Metzora, which deals with ritual impurity and disease, I read references to women, their cycles, ritual baths and then found related commentary about women empowerment - which is the theme of my talk this evening.

I read an interesting commentary on our Parashat from Rabbi Elyse Goldstein: She believes our society sends negative messages about  striving for female body perfection starting with childhood and sees this theme in Metzora.

To update thinking about this viewpoint, Rabbi Goldstein rewrote the traditional morning blessing which reads: "Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has not made me a woman." (Traditionally, women say instead, "who has made me according to Your will.") Instead, each month when she has her cycle she says: "Baruch atah Adonai, eloheinu melech haolam, she'asani ishah: Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has made me a woman." Saying the blessing and changing the negative "who has not made me a woman" into the positive "who has made me a woman" - affirms our holiness and sanctity.  Rabbi Goldstein changes the traditional notion about a monthly condition conveying impurity to one of sacredness and power. To bring this portion further into the 21st century, lets take a look at Women of the Wall.

On April 3rd, I heard Lesley Sachs, Executive Director of Women of the Wall (WOW), speak at  a WLCJ MAR program and I was so moved I had to talk about their struggle and accomplishments this evening.  Lesley, a charming, intelligent educated women who speaks three languages, has been arrested four times pursuing what we consider to be basic rights belonging to any Jew - praying out loud, wearing a tallis, wearing tefillin and reading the Torah.  Lesley defines Women of the Wall as a group of mostly religiously observant women who believe women have the right to pray to God in any way they feel fit.

First, a little history:  The Kotel, the Western Wall of the Second Temple has also been called the "Wailing Wall", referring to Jews weeping at the site over the destruction of the Temples. Keep in mind we pray toward the direction of the kotel. (I always thought we prayed toward Jerusalem but learned we pray towards the kotel.) WOW, along with many others, view the kotel as a national Holy site  - not a shul.  In contrast the Haredi (the theologically, politically, and socially conservative Ultraorthodox Jews) believe the area in front of the Wall has the status of a synagogue and must be treated with due respect. This view is also firmly upheld by the Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the Haredi authority in charge of the wall. Keep in mind only 6% of Israeli residents are Orthodox but they have power far beyond their population percentage.

Into this emotional and sacred location comes WOW. The group was founded in December 1988 at the first International Jewish Feminist Conference in Jerusalem. During the conference the women did not have a space large enough to pray together.  So you are in Jerusalem and what do you do? A group of 70 multi-denominational women went to conduct a halakhic (legal according to Jewish law) women’s prayer service at the kotel. As no provisions for Torah reading existed in the women’s section, they wore tallit, brought a Sefer Torah (Torah scroll), stood together and prayed out loud.

Suddenly many women, and men on the other side of the mechitzah (partition separating men and women), began to scream, curse and threaten the women. The then Kotel Administrator allowed them to finish the service stating they were “not violating Halakhah (Jewish Law).”

Since that time, for over twenty eight years WOW has struggled to pray together while wearing tallitot and to again read from a Torah Scroll at the Kotel. They have endured violence (chairs and dirty diapers being thrown at them). The women have endured verbal abuse (men screaming that the Torah belongs only to them).  They have spent many years being arrested and fighting in court for these basic rights  while mobilizing support from the Israeli and international community and raising funds.

We see the traditional viewpoint written in our parashat reflected in the way WOW are treated as impure women and not deserving of the right to pray at the Kotel.  What the Torah deems as tamei ("impure") or tahor ("pure") is not actually attached to cleanliness, even though these words are often translated as "unclean" and "clean." These Hebrew words are ritual terms, meant to designate those in a physical and spiritual state unable to enter the Tabernacle; and in later times, the Temple, or those able to do so. Those who are considered tamei are taboo (which is not what we think of as "bad"), meaning that they cannot enter the sacred space; and the thing that causes them to be ineligible to enter is also understood to be taboo.

Lesley Sachs and WOW have my respect as they have battled the Israeli government and the Haredi Orthodox movement for almost 30 years and have refused to take no for an answer. 

The Women of the Wall did read from a full-size Torah scroll at the Wall on April 20, 2015. Male supporters enduring verbal abuse and physical attacks from Orthodox passed one of the 100 full-sized Torah scrolls available for men's public use to the women's side of the wall. The Orthodox men broke through the barrier between the men's and women's sides and attempted to take the scroll away from the women, but were apprehended by police. After the chaos, the women were allowed to finish their morning service.

To stop access to the men's side Torahs, Western Wall police padlocked the gate separating the men's side of the Wall from the women's on May 18, 2015. Women all over the world have access to Torah scrolls. It is only at the Kotel in Jerusalem that women are forbidden from holding, kissing and reading from the Torah. Rabbi Rabinowitz repeatedly refuses Women of the Wall’s requests for a Torah. He has also banned all ‘outside’ Torah scrolls from being brought into the Kotel. This catch-22 results in discriminatory practice that attempts to keep Torahs out of the hands of women in a public, holy space in Israel.

On January 31, 2016, the Israeli government approved the creation of an “egalitarian” prayer space where non-Orthodox Jewish men and women can pray together at the Western Wall. Jewish leaders across the globe applauded the decision while Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Israeli citizens and members of the government expressed opposition. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (who felt the pressure from Jewish groups worldwide) stated that the creation of this space was a “fair and creative solution,” to rising tensions at the site.

WOW called the decision a victory saying the government officially recognized more than one way exists to be Jewish. The new prayer space will be south of the men's and women's prayer sections in Robinson's Arch. The first Reform, mixed-gender prayer service to ever take place at the Western Wall was held at this space on February 25, 2016. We will have to watch to see if the “egalitarian” prayer space is actually built as the arguments and lawsuits have already begun.

The Western Wall is Judaism’s holiest site - and it belongs to all Jews. I hope you join me in support of Women of the Wall.  You can read more about them at their website and follow them on their Facebook page.

 Let me end with part of the WOW mission statement:

"Every time we meet to pray, we empower and encourage Jewish women to embrace religion freely, in their own way. We stand proudly and strongly in the forefront of the movement for religious pluralism in Israel, in the hopes to inspire and empower women from all over the world and across the spectrum of Jewish movements to find their spiritual voice."


It’s Time We Talk: On Being Jewish at Rosh Hashanah

Original Text by Rabbi Ed Feinstein

Valley Beth Shalom, Encino, CA

I feel a sense of urgency to have an important conversation with you – a necessary conversation. I hope you will have the same conversation with your family and those close to you. Consider this an open invitation, a beginning.

I will start with a story.  A young man, let’s call him Eric, shared a bedroom with his brother, let’s call him Larry. On Rosh Hashanah morning, their mother would come into their room and wake them up for shul. Eric was the good kid. He woke up, dressed, and got ready. His brother, Larry, pulled the covers over his head.  Their mom would come back and try again to get him up. “I don’t want to go to shul!” he would yell. “I don’t like it. It’s boring. Why do I have to go?” Their mom would then lay out a carefully considered case for holiday observance – the whole family is going, and you need to be with us; the whole Jewish people is celebrating; these are the High Holidays, important days…” Mom did her best, but Larry still wouldn’t get out of bed. “I don’t want to be Jewish. I hate shul. Why do I have to go? Why do I have to be Jewish?” he’d scream from beneath the blankets. And then their mom would lose her patience, lower her voice and bring on the heavy artillery – “My family died in the Holocaust, and you won’t go to shul?” At this, Larry relented. “Ok, but I’m not wearing a tie.”

This went on year after year. Then came the year when Larry was sixteen. The drama played itself out as always. Larry stayed in bed.

Their mom tried to persuade him to get up for shul. He refused. Their mom laid on the guilt trip: “My family died in the Holocaust, and you won’t go to shul?” This time, Larry threw the covers back and with a face full of rage he screamed back at her: “They died in the camps? That’s the best reason not to go!” Their mom had no response. So Larry stayed home.  And he did not go again for many, many years.

I’ve come to realize that despite his combative attitude, there really was nothing wrong with Larry’s question. It’s actually a very important question. For most of history, being Jewish was something assigned to you before you were born. But not anymore. In modernity, being Jewish, along with every other defining identity, isn’t ascribed.  It’s chosen.  So Larry’s questions - Why go to shul? Why be Jewish? - turn out to be very important. Their mother, even though she was a very committed, serious and educated Jew, couldn’t answer that question. No one of that generation could. 

The most devastating tragedy in all of Jewish history was the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, by the Romans in the year 70. This devastation is matched or exceeded by the Holocaust. The most miraculous moment of redemption in all of Jewish history was the Exodus from Egypt. This miracle is matched or exceeded by the rebirth of the State of Israel. The Exodus and the Destruction of the Temple took place 1,500 years apart. The Holocaust and the birth of Israel took place within one decade, in the experience of one generation.  How does one generation absorb such vicissitudes? How do we make sense of such a cataclysm?

Emerging from the trauma of the Shoa, Jews stopped asking questions. Questions were too painful.  To numb the pain, the Jewish world adopted a single-minded ideology of survival. We called it “continuity.” The ideology was best articulated by the philosopher, Emil Fackenheim, who taught that out of Auschwitz came a 614th commandment, the pre-eminent imperative of contemporary Jewish life: Don’t let Hitler win. We don’t know what to believe or how to have faith. We cannot explain God, believe in God, or talk to God. All we know is that we are forbidden to hand Hitler a posthumous victory.

So we silenced those who challenged and questioned and sublimated our anguish and rage and our doubts into an explosion of collective industriousness. Count up all the Jewish institutions built in the decades since the war – all the synagogues and schools, seminaries and summer camps, all the agencies and organizations in North America, and the infrastructure and institutions of the State of Israel. We never asked why or for what ultimate purpose. Those questions hurt too much. In the face of so much Jewish death, we defined Jewish survival as a self-evident value and proceeded to build. We had no way to understand God’s presence in the world, so we determined to be God’s presence – to be the very providence and protection we prayed for.

Toward the end of the century, however, the numbness wore off. The ideology of survival wore thin. Young Jews, just like Larry, began asking startling questions: “Why? Why survive?  Why be Jewish? Why marry Jewish? Why raise children Jewish?” Their parents responded by reflexively citing the horrors of the Holocaust, but the kids turned away unmoved. Anti-anti-Semitism is not a foundation for Jewish life. You can’t build a life on darkness and death.

We sent our kids to Israel to witness the miracle of the reborn Jewish state. But the kids asked, “Why Israel? What is this to me?” We sent them to summer camps to experience the joys and beauty of Jewish life. What’s more beautiful than Shabbat at camp? We brought the music and spirit of camp into the synagogue. And the kids appreciated it. They got it – being Jewish is joyful and sweet. Being part of a community is warm and embracing. Feeling the tug of history and heritage is ennobling. But it’s not enough. They were looking for something more - more than aesthetics, more than community or history. They were looking for truth. Jewish truth, Jewish answers to the fundamental questions of human existence: Who am I? How do I live a life that matters?

The Passover Hagaddah imagines four children sitting at the Seder table. One child asks how? “What are the rites and rules that are to be observed?” He is portrayed as the Wise Child. The answers we give him don’t satisfy the second child. He asks “Why? What does all this mean to you?” That’s a much more challenging question. So he is castigated, rejected as the Wicked Child. In fact, it is this “wicked” child who asks the important questions: “Why do we do this? Why should I include myself in this story? What difference does this make to me?”

Our kids are not wicked. They deserve answers. We can’t dismiss them, bribe them or seduce them. Not if we’re asking them to cultivate a personal Jewish identity, to choose a life partner who will share and enrich their Jewish life. Not if we’re asking them to devote an important part of their lives to the Jewish people, to Israel, to the Jewish community, to the Jewish tradition. They deserve answers. But to answer, we must learn a new and unfamiliar language. The old language doesn’t work anymore. We have to talk to the most basic questions of life and death, about purpose and meaning, about our place in the universe. Jews have a word for that; it’s called God. We have to learn to talk about God once again.  

At the end of the Passover Seder, we invite a guest to join us – Elijah, the prophet. It is interesting that we invite him at the end of the Seder. Wouldn’t it make more sense to welcome a guest at the beginning of a feast? Elijah comes at the end because it takes the whole Seder to prepare us to hear his message. That message is the answer to our questions.  

Elijah’s story is set in the middle of the 9th century BCE. The people Israel, once united under King Solomon, were divided into two kingdoms. The Southern Kingdom was small and weak. The Northern Kingdom was prosperous and powerful, but politically unstable. At the beginning of the 9th century, a general named Omri took the throne of the Northern kingdom in a coup. He achieved a degree of domestic security and then conquered all the neighboring kingdoms and expanded the borders and power of Israel. He insured his conquests by marrying his son, Ahab, to Jezebel, daughter of the Phoenician king of Sidon. Ahab and Jezebel ascended the throne in 869 BCE, and ruled for twenty years.

While Ahab was occupied defending the borders of his empire, Jezebel set to work consolidating the religious culture of Israel around the worship of her ancestral gods. She opened a campaign to murder all the prophets of Israel’s god and installed the worship of Baal and Asherah as the official national religion. Only one prophet survived, a lone stranger by the name of Elijah. 

Elijah realized that if he was going to bring the people Israel back to their god, he needed something spectacular.  So he challenged all the priests of Baal to a public contest. This Super Bowl of Prophecy took place on Mt Carmel.  Let each side erect an altar, he proposed, bring a bull, prepare it for sacrifice, but light no fire. We’ll ask our respective gods to supply the fire. The god who complies, who sends fire from heaven….we’ll accept that one as our God.

The story is told in First Kings:

...the prophets of Baal took the bull that was given them; prepared it, and invoked Baal by name from morning until noon, shouting, “O Baal, answer us!” But there was no response, … so they performed a dance about the altar...   When noon came, Elijah mocked them, saying, “Shout louder! After all, he is a god. But he may be in conversation, he may be detained, or on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep….”   So they shouted louder, and gashed themselves with knives and spears, …, until the blood streamed over them. …Still there was no response.

Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come closer to me”; and all the people came closer to him. He repaired the damaged altar of the Lord. laid out the wood, cut up the bull and laid it on the wood.  He said, “Fill four jars with water and pour it over the burnt offering and the wood.” Then he said, “Do it a [again]”; and [then]… a third time,” [until the] water ran down around the altar ….

 …Elijah came forward and said, “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel! Let it be known today that You are God in Israel and that I am Your servant...  Answer me, O Lord, answer me, that this people may know that You, O Lord, are God; for You have turned their hearts backward.”

Then fire from the Lord descended and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the earth; and it licked up the water that was in the trench.  When they saw this, all the people flung themselves on their faces and cried out: “ Adonai hu ha-Elohim…The Lord alone is God, The Lord alone is God!”

Elijah’s moment of triumph was short-lived. Queen Jezebel designated him as a public enemy and issued orders to find and kill him. Elijah fled for his life into the desert.

It wasn’t only Jezebel’s rage that sent him away. Elijah realized what he’d done.  He had set out to bring the people Israel back to the God of their ancestors. In the end he only proved to them that God could do better magic tricks than Baal.  He turned God into an idol.

The idol is more than an image. An idol is a projection of my ego, a projection of my desires, my fears, my needs. The idol is a power outside myself. So I stand abject before the idol. I flatter and sweet-talk the idol. I bring gifts to the idol, and I beg the idol to do what I need done in the world. And if the idol complies, I become its loyal servant, its slave. And if not... I find a better idol. I shop my needs around until I find a god who’s interested in helping me in exchange for my devotion.

Anything can become our idol, even God. It’s how most of us do religion. We’re down here. God is up there. God, we imagine, is driving the universe. And we’re here praising, flattering, cajoling, hoping that somehow we can get God to drive us where we want to go.

It’s not entirely about selfishness; ultimately, it’s about fear. When we experience how painfully fragile life is and realize how little control we have, even the most sophisticated among us descends into that simple, primitive level of human sensibility. How could it be otherwise? We were once small children, and our parents were huge and powerful beings who protected us. Every one of us carries that subconscious childhood memory.  In moments of personal distress, every one of us yearns to be held, and protected and sheltered in the arms of a loving parent.  

The Torah begins with the recognition that we are bigger than our fear.  If we identify our protective power as something above or outside us, we will forever remain frightened children. If we think of the universe as a hierarchy, with humans, weak and feeble, below and an all-powerful God or gods, above, we become slaves again. That was Pharaoh’s world. That’s what we left behind in Egypt – the servile, submissive life of the slave. Human freedom comes only with spiritual maturity and that comes when we recognize that divine power and divine love are not outside of us. That power is within us, within our own reach. We are the channel and the vessel of that power.

Elijah is despondent. And he’s frightened. But more, he’s searching. He needs to know - if God is not the idol he conjured, then who is God? So he flees to Horeb, to Mt Sinai, where it all began, where the people Israel first met God. Again, from the book of Kings: 

… The word of the Lord came to him. … “Come out,” He called, “and stand on the mountain before the Lord.” And the Lord passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind, an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake.  After the earthquake, fire; but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire, kol demamah daka.  When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his mantle about his face and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then a voice addressed him: “Why are you here, Elijah?”

Wind and earthquake and fire, awesome, majestic, terrifying in their power, but not God. Then, kol demamah daka. Kol, means sound or voice. Demamah, means silence. Daka means delicate, fine, or perhaps, exquisite. An exquisite, delicate, silence. A precious stillness. And out of the silence, a voice.  The Bible doesn’t say whose voice. But a voice that doesn’t command, or intimidate or terrify. A voice that asks a question, the question of all human existence: “Why are you here? Why are you in the world? What is your purpose?”

Elijah came to mountain seeking God. And he discovered a God seeking him. He came to question God, and discovered a God asking questions of him. Our questions of God are God’s questions of us. “Why are you here? What is your purpose?” The search for God begins with these questions. What kind of universe would I have to imagine in order to make sense of my existence? What kind of a universe would I have to imagine to lend my existence meaning and lend my life purpose? These are not questions of a God far away in the heavens or even up on the mountain. Not in the fire or the wind or the earthquake. These are the deepest questions of the human heart. That’s where God dwells.

Rabbi Arye Yehuda Alter, the Gerrer Rebbe, was leader of a Hasidic community in Warsaw before the First World War. Here is one of his teachings: “The proclamation of oneness that we declare each day in saying, Shema Yisrael, needs to be understood as it truly is. The meaning of “Adonai is one” is not that He is the only God, negating other gods (though this too is true), but the meaning is deeper than that: There is nothing else but God. …Everything that exists in the world, spiritual and physical, is God Himself.  …Because of this, every person can attach himself [to God] wherever he is, through the holiness that exists within every single thing, even physical things.  … A person in such a state lacks for nothing, for he can attach himself to God through whatever place he is in.  This is the foundation of all the truth in the world.”

God isn’t other. God isn’t up there while we’re down here. God isn’t distant. It’s all God. And it’s all one. Beneath the surface appearance of separate and distinct objects lies the deeper reality. It’s all one.

The Gerrer Rebbe imagines the universe as one body, with God as the soul or the self of the universe. And we are cells in the body of God. Just as cells are discrete, individual units of life, each of us is both a uniquely individual expression of God’s being, necessary for the survival of the whole. But at the same time, we are organically bound to the whole, contributing to the whole and drawing sustenance from the whole. The firm and absolute boundary separating us from one another is an illusion. It’s a destructive illusion. Because it tempts us to think that we can go it alone, neglecting the needs of the whole. That’s what we call evil. Evil is to the world what cancer is to a body – a cell that has gone its own way and has ceased to function for the benefit of the whole.

This truth is the foundation of Jewish spiritual wisdom, Jewish ethics, and Jewish religious practice. A previous shul of mine had two beautiful stained-glass windows. I looked at them from my chair on the bimah. One says the Shema Yisrael, Adonai Echad, God is the One. The other says, V’ahavta l’reacha kmocha, usually translated: Love your neighbor as yourself. These are two reflections of the same truth. If all is one, there is no “other.” Read the verse: Love your neighbor, who is yourself.

This is a very hard truth to live.  For as soon as we achieve a sense of echad, our oneness, the ego screams, Me! So the rabbis designed a system of cues, reminders to keep us mindful of echad in daily life. The mezuzah on the door, for example, says Shema Yisrael - before you enter your home, listen for a moment, try to regain Elijah’s silence, and remember, Adonai Ehad, - you are one, one with your family who lives in your home, one with the community that shares the neighborhood, one with humanity that fills this very small planet. They are part of you. And so it is with everything else we do as Jews, every mitzvah and ritual and rite… it is all about quelling the noise of the world and the shouting of the ego, to regain Elijah’s silence, to know oneness.

“Why are you here?” You are the eyes and ears and hands of God in the world. You channel God’s power - to bring healing where there is pain, hope where there is despair, light where there is darkness, peace where there is conflict.  You have been entrusted with an ancient truth. And at this moment in human history, when terrifying instruments of death are unleashed against innocent children with impunity, when environmental catastrophe looms close to home, when millions and millions suffer poverty, hunger and want, and so many among the affluent languish without a sense of purpose, the truth of our oneness in whatever language it is expressed must find its way into the consciousness of humanity. It is the only truth that can save us. That’s why our tradition imagines Elijah as the one who will announce the Messiah’s coming, and the arrival of peace and wholeness in the world.

So, why be Jewish? Because, as Elijah’s descendant, you possess the tools of the world’s redemption. Why be Jewish? Because the world desperately, desperately needs you.

Now, more than ever.



The Rabbi Within

By Alan Troy

Ira Klein’s physician workday had finally settled into the kind of routine reserved for most semi-retired, senior professionals.  When the honeymoon phase of the new job had run its course, Ira began to wonder why he still kept at it, even with the newly discovered free time for extracurricular activity that semi-retirement rendered.  Drawing, painting, sculpting, music, and reading were all nice diversions, but there was that background of wondering when the next source of intellectual challenge would pop out of the woodwork.  Or would the retirement years fly by too fast to even consider such challenges? 

Wednesday afternoon the phone call from Rob Melman’s wife, Claire, jolted Ira from the reveries and ennui that engulfed him in the latter part of his workday, while clicking mechanically on the computer.  Rob and Claire were long-time friends of Ira and his wife, Alice.  Anticipating a pleasant break in his workday, he picked up the receiver.

“Hi there,” said Ira, struggling to sound upbeat and fully awake.  Claire would usually chat for a while before Ira sensed it was time to pass the phone on to Alice and let the professionals take over.  But this time was different.  Claire was clearly interested in bending Ira’s ear, and soon made the reason for her call apparent.  Her mother, Emma, was terminally ill, on potent narcotic sedation—‘comfort measures’, as health-care providers call it. 

At first, Ira thought it only natural for a close friend to call him, the long-time, experienced physician.  He was quite accustomed to serving the role of compassionate listener, reassuring the families of the terminally ill.  Aside from his own encounters with the deaths of loved ones, he had learned from his experience with patients that the disheveled emotions of the bereaved needed to find a sense of order in the final chaotic moments of a loved one’s life.

Claire’s banter slowed, hesitated, and then transitioned to asking a favor:  “Can you officiate at my mother’s funeral?” 

Ira was speechless for a moment.  As a professional in his own sphere of work, he had long since learned what to say and how to react at the right moment.  Before he could suggest that a rabbi might be a better choice than himself, Claire pre-empted that thought: “Rabbi Itzhak is unable to officiate because the interment is going to be in a crypt, not in a grave, and he feels that isn’t Halakhic…and besides, my mother really doesn’t want Rabbi Itzhak to officiate at her funeral.”

Now, this was a new one for Ira.  Feeling honored on one hand and out of his league on the other, he was at a loss for words.  “I’ve never done that sort of thing, Claire,” he surrendered.  Given a moment to digest his thoughts, Ira asked “Could I have a little time to research this and see what I can come up with?”  Committing on the spot was not in his repertoire.  He’d never even met Emma!

Ira had, of course, attended many Jewish funerals and burials.  Aside from wearing a dark suit, looking mournful, and saying Kaddish, there was not much that he could remember about what was really required.  He wished he had paid more attention to what was going on around him but, after all, deferring to the rabbi was a very natural tendency on such occasions.  Staring passively into space usually followed suit.

It dawned on him that he really should be a bit more knowledgeable about these sorts of life cycle events.  His Jewish education had enabled him to lain Torah, daven, and participate in many other Jewish traditions and rituals, but this was not the everyday type of event.  This was a sad occasion.  This was traditionally a rabbi’s job.

Upon hanging up, it occurred to him that Morty Jacobson might have an idea. Morty had been around the shule as much as any of Ira’s close friends; maybe he would have the answer.

Ira dialed him up.  “Hello, Morty, how are ya?  Listen, I’ve got to ask you something off the beaten path.” 

“Sure,” said Morty--in his usual receptive mood--“go ahead.”  Ira explained his dilemma.

Morty’s response both intrigued and surprised Ira:  “I’ve officiated at a funeral, and it’s a real mitzvah.  It’s actually a very rewarding experience, in a spiritual kind of way.”  Morty went on to relate how he had explained some of the time-honored traditions that comprise the Jewish funeral ceremony, such as K’riah--the ripping of the mourner’s garment—and the back-side-up way the shovel is handled at a Jewish burial.  Suddenly Ira could picture himself doing this.

“Thank heavens for Alice’s Judaica library,” Ira thought.  Alice’s adult conversion resulted in a plethora of books on Judaica that would save the day for him, and they now served as a vital resource for his study of Jewish tradition, law, ceremony, and liturgy that applied to the passing of a loved one.  Even the internet had a few pearls of information to complement what he learned, so that by 4 AM, with gritty eyeballs, he had conceived a meaningful format for the funeral.

His greatest puzzle remained: how to get the ceremony started?  Even as he was driving to the funeral home, he was struggling for the right words to begin.  Since the night before, he couldn’t help the feeling of hypocrisy and of being somewhat of an imposter.  He, himself, struggled to believe in a world with an almighty deity--and now he was playing rabbi?  The El Maleh Rachamim, the Psalms, and the Kaddish were all familiar by now, but what was he really trying to do with all this traditional material?  “I’m really not the most spiritual guy for this sort of job,” he thought.

He had arrived at that critical moment human endeavor always seems to have to come to grip with, when it’s down to the wire:  “What is really important here?” Ira asked himself.  “I can’t let Claire down.  What do these people care about?”  Honoring Emma’s wishes was the easy part; what about the needs of the attendees?

In that moment, Ira knew he was no longer a passive follower of rabbinic protocol.  By taking on a leadership role of a spiritual nature, he had to invest himself in the dissection of his own spiritual life and how he understood death, and then continue by finding a way to share it with Emma’s loved ones.  Oddly, it reminded him of his struggle to understand Einstein’s theory of space and time.

As the ceremony began, he caught Rabbi Itzhak’s profile in his peripheral vision, which only made Ira more self-conscious. Then he began.  “I am not a rabbi, but Claire and Rob are my dear friends, and I am honored to be asked to officiate on such an occasion.”  As the ritual unfolded, he focused on addressing the spiritual and emotional needs of his listeners, conveying what he, himself, had learned in the preceding 24 hours.

“It is our own mortality that we have to face each time we do this, and we learn to appreciate life only because we can perceive its end.  And although we don’t know what lies beyond life’s exit, we cannot help but ponder the Jewish concept of the soul and its eternal journey…”  The service went well.  K’riah, eulogies, psalms, a little musical interlude, and a trip to the cemetery, where Ira explained how we demonstrate our reluctance to say farewell to a loved one in how we handle the shovel, even while symbolically placing small amounts of dirt on the coffin before its entry into the crypt, a little creative addition Ira had worked into the above-ground interment.  Claire expressed deep gratitude that Jewish burial traditions were maintained in the context of her mothers’ wishes, and Ira knew that he’d done a true mitzvah.

Ira had learned that, in every Jew, there is a little rabbi within, and that while it is easy to passively follow the rabbi, there are times when we must strive to work harder.  We must draw out the rabbi from within us and, in doing so, keep our individual and communal spirituality alive.  It was times like these that could bring out the best in us.

The more he thought about it, especially in the larger picture of history, the rabbi within has served the Jewish people well.  As a source of spiritual epiphany, it had inspired Abraham to smash idols, Moses to lead the Exodus, and even his late friend, Pinchas Berg, to lead their synagogue as an inspiring gabbai at services.

What Ira now understood was that the rabbi within had enabled the Jewish people to grow the Talmud from the Babylonian exile, to rejuvenate after the Holocaust, and to transition from an age of priests and sacrifices to one of rabbis and Torah study.  The rabbi within all of us can transport our Jewish community and people, in any setting, from one era to the next.

This story was based upon an actual eventOnly the names were changed.

The above story illustrates several points about the Jewish experience and how it applies to our transition in rabbinical leadership. As opposed to many other religions, Judaism has dispensed with the role of the priest as an intermediary between man and Hashem.  The rabbi is a teacher, first and foremost, from whom we are expected to learn the ways of Jewish living.  The rabbi can guide us through the important traditions and ceremonies gracefully.

Among the members of the B’nai Jacob Ritual Committee are persons who have been pivotal in helping to meet the individual needs of CBJ’s members.  While we search for the right rabbi to succeed Rabbi Brown, our team has all reached for the rabbi within us, in order to fulfill the ongoing needs of the B’nai Jacob community.  Collectively, our committee members present an awesome array of abilities and skill:  davening any and all services, Torah reading, Haphtarah reading, leading Divrei Torah discussions and giving sermons.  As we reach for the rabbi within, we will continue to assist with any and all life events:  births, deaths, shivahs, bar/bat mitzvah, weddings, and so on.

My father belonged to four shules in Scranton.  The members carried out all rabbinical functions at two of those shules.  On rare occasions, the complexities required the assistance of an ordained Rabbi from outside their own shule.  All of the members of those two shules without a rabbi worked together to make sure their community’s needs were met.  That is our Jewish tradition.

Speaking for myself, Joe Silberman, Eric Miller, Sandy Stone, Stephen Corbman, Joel and Judy Eisner, and our President, Mark Snow, we will individually reach for inner rabbi, and collaboratively continue to provide for the spiritual needs of our members both during and after this transition to a new rabbi.