Wrestling Toward Transformation

Night is supposed to be the time that we are able to lay our heads down and rest. A time to let go of everything from the day, rest our bodies in order that we may rise up in the morning, renewed and refreshed in order to begin a new day.

We recite the blessing, hashkiveinu ADONAI Eloheinu l’shalom, cause us O God to lie down in peace that we may rise up again in peace. And then the final words on our lips as we go to sleep are Shema Yisrael, ADONAI Eloheinu, ADONAI  echad, listen Israel, ADONAI is our God, ADONAI is one.

But sometimes night is not as restful as we hope it to be. In the quiet we are sometimes awakened by all the activity in our heads and there is nothing we can do but lift ourselves up from our beds and wander through the halls of the house.

Jacob, Ya’akov, was not a very sound sleeper either. He could not sleep as he awaited his reunion with his brother, Esau, whom he stole his birthright and blessing from so many years before. Jacob’s life, up until this point, had been one of deception and trickery. From his birth when Esau pulled Jacob back into the womb in order to be born first, to his mother’s hand in helping Jacob procure the blessing meant for Esau from their father Isaac, to the deception of his father-in-law, Laban who tricked Jacob into marrying his eldest daughter Leah first, rather than the one Jacob loved, Rachel. And now, here he slept on the shores of the Jabbok awaiting the brother he was sure wanted to kill him. No, he could not sleep soundly that night.

When Jacob wandered the shore we read:

Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” But he answered, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” Said the other, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.” Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Ya’akov, but Yisrael, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” (Genesis 32:25-29)

Jacob was finally freed of from this life of deceit and fear. Our Sages teach us that names in TaNaKH, the Bible, are connected with a person’s characteristics, personality and destiny. The change of Jacob’s name to Yisrael is a final purging of his challenged past to a new beginning of his life that will be blessed and that we will be blessed by.

When we lie down and recite the Shema, we know that there are times in our day that we struggle. And when we say, “Listen Yisrael” it is our personal reminder that we are allowed to rest. It is a reminder that throughout our lives, we experience change and renewable moments. It is a call that while we wrestle through the challenges of our days we also find blessings in the works of our hands. Yet through our day to day wrestling, we are transformed, for every experience is an opportunity to learn, grow and prevail.

Flooding our World with Bullying

Can you imagine – God says to you, ‘I’m not happy with how things are going in the world. People are mean. No one’s listening to each other. And no one has respect for one another. Listen Noah,  you seem to have it together. You’re not getting caught in the middle of all the bickering. I’m going to destroy the world and you and your family get to start all over again. Oh, and by the way, make sure to take two of each animal so they can start over too.’

Why did it get so bad? Why did the people not take care of one another? Why didn’t anyone say anything? Why were they so quiet? Why didn’t Noah speak up?

Over the past three weeks, five teens have taken their lives after bullying and public disclosure regarding their sexual identity. There is an epidemic in our nation and we have to listen. Seth Walsh (13), Asher Brown (13), Tyler Clementi (17), Billy Lucas (15), Raymond Chase (19), all took their own lives because of bullying.  Today, 1 in 3 gay teens attempt suicide. Teens are harassed for being gay or lesbian or even perceived as being such. Our teens are facing more criticism today than ever before and we must act now if we want to see this end.

Facebook, email, instant messaging are all convenient ways we stay in touch with one another, but they are also tools for bullying and harassment. It’s easy to go on line, make snide comments about others while remaining distant and even nameless. It’s convenient to criticize and tease someone when you can remain faceless and not directly confront another. It seems harmless to joke about someone’s appearance, behavior or even post pictures on a public sites like Facebook or MySpace. We can easily justify it because someone is “asking for it” when they make themselves vulnerable by even allowing themselves to be on these public social media sites. But there is no excuse for what is going on in the lives of our youth.

We must do something. We must speak to our children, no matter their age, about the destruction bullying and teasing can cause. Encourage our children to speak out when they see someone is being targeted by others at school or on the internet. Remind them that they should talk to a teacher, counselor, or best of all, their parents rather than remain silent and hope that it all blows over. This isn’t easy, especially when our children do not want to be perceived as do-gooders or teacher’s pets.

And when we as adults see or hear children or anyone being teased or bullied, we must speak up! No one deserves so much pain that the only outlet to be found is to end their life. Life is too precious to be cut short because of bullying and hate.

There is an epidemic in our world and we need to act now to save the lives of our teens.  Our world is not perfect and after Noah and the flood, God promised never to destroy the world again. Yet, if we remain silent while our young people are in pain, we flood our own world in hurt and destruction of the human spirit.

Life is Short – Slow Down!

(from my High Holy Day message in TBS Kol Sholom)

Summer is here and I look back and wonder what happened to the rest of the year.  Time seems to be moving more quickly and each month is a passing memory.  I listen to children speak about how long the school year has been and that it seems like forever since their last summer break.  And with these comments I wonder, where have I been?  Why is time moving so quickly – one day into the next, one sunrise into sunset before I can even realize that the day is already a memory?

It was only yesterday that we gathered together last High Holy Days, reflecting on the year that was and setting goals for a new beginning.  And here we are again, a time to reflect, a time to contemplate, a time to dream.

As life would have it, we try to move through everything as quickly as we can in order to get as much into our days and nights as possible.  It seems that the more we can do, the faster we can move, life will be more fulfilling.  But instead, the Talmud teaches us: Life is short, we must move slowly.

Too often life seems to be a race – the one who is able to get through everything first, wins.  But the Talmud reminds us that this is not the case.  Life is not a race during which we should be moving so fast that we forget to enjoy the moment we are in.  Rather, life is short, we should slow down and enjoy it.

How often do we look at our watch hoping for a program to be over?  How often do we look to the clock to see when one hour will end and we can get on to the next?  How often do we check the schedule to see when one event will conclude so that we can rush to the beginning of the next?  It seems that life has become a race that has no finish line in sight except for the finish line that no one wishes to reach.

But we are in too great of a hurry, wanting to check our to-do items off the list and move on to the next.  What happened to the joy of just being IN the moment?  What happened to being present?

The High Holy Days are here again and we are asked to reflect on the year that was and set goals for the year yet to be.  We are at the beginning of a new year and the question is posed for us again; what will you do this year?  How will you live your life and what changes do you hope to make?  How will these visions for this next year not only affect yourself, but also your family and your community?  How will you move more slowly?

Life is short, we must move slowly.  Enjoy this moment and the next.  Do not wish it away so that you can get on with the next item on the list, for if we do, the list will run out and so will time.

May this new year be one filled with precious moments that each of us pause to truly savor its sweetness.

L’Shanah Tovah!

Rabbi Heidi M. Cohen

Sh’ma and the Voice Inside My Head

Ever since we got back from Colorado last Sunday, my right ear has been completely stuffed. I can still sort of hear out of it, but when I talk, I feel like I am in an aquarium.  It’s been quite annoying this past week, but tonight, I noticed something very different about this stuffed ear syndrome that brought some interesting meaning.

This past Shabbat’s Torah portion included the Sh’ma – Hear (Listen) Israel, ADONAI is our God, ADONAI is One. This is the watchword of our faith as Jews. We say it when we wake up, we say it when we’re going to bed. It get’s it’s own page in the prayerbook. And when we say this prayer, we are encouraged to close our eyes in order to remove the distractions we see with our eyes and truly listen to these important words.

Tonight, at services in the beauty of the Camp Hess Kramer chapel, surrounded by the large trees and plants, I closed my eyes preparing to say the Sh’ma, when I heard something quite different. This time, I heard my own voice inside my body. Rather than having my voice commingle with all the other voices, I heard my own voice singing the Sh’ma, calling me to listen to my self and hear  these words in my voice. Tonight, it was a call not just to all of us as a community to listen, this was a call to me that I have to take the time and listen for God’s voice in the world.

You Never Know the Impression You’ll Make

Last summer, during my time at Camp Hess Kramer in Malibu, I told a story during Shabbat about a rabbi who loved to be out in nature and found himself getting lost, being found by some bandits, learning a nigun (a tune with no words) from them and having to take it back to teach to others because it was too great to forget.  During the story, as I was talking about all the amazing things the rabbi saw in nature, two deer just happened to literally jump into the middle of the outdoor chapel. The campers were amazed, as was I.  After the deer took their leave of us, I continued the story, including teaching the camp the nigun.

For the rest of my time up at camp, the campers sang the nigun and talked about the deer.  I later learned that I was nicknamed the “Deer Whisperer!” It was a great honor to have such an experience with the campers last summer – so much so, that I even used it in one of my Rosh Hashanah Sermon. But I never really realized what kind of impact the whole experience had on the campers.

Today, after Matt and I dropped off DovLev for her camp experience, Matt, JediYeled and I headed to Camp Hess Kramer. Upon our arrival, campers and staff alike, were approaching me and telling me how great last summer’s story was and how excited they were to see me.  Some came up seeing the nigun, others told me about how incredible it was for them to have the deer in the service. Another told me about her morning run and seeing some deer along her route and realizing how incredible the world is all around her.

It’s amazing to think how one little story, one nigun and two deer can impact the lives of a lot of incredible youth and adults alike.  It’s a reminder that what we do and what we say will be remembered for a long time. Therefore, we must take advantage of the moments that we have to say something, do something, or just be someone that will inspire another.

A Fish Funeral

I don’t know what it is about our vacations to Colorado, but I feel horrible for the great family who watches JediYeled’s fish and DovLev’s hamster.  So far, the hamster is fairing well.  Although I did warn the wonderful family that he was getting up there in age – three years old!  But JediYeled’s fish seems to not have as good of luck.  This is the second year in the row that we have had to break the bad news to JediYeled that his fish has died.

Last year, when Anakin passed, the wonderful family gave him a dignified burial at sea.  But this year, for Rexi, JediYeled wanted to make sure that he could bury him in the backyard – next to DovLev’s fishes that we killed…I mean died while she was at camp.

After retrieving Rexi from the wonderful family’s freezer (right next to the Chanukah candles), we brought him home and immediately found Rexi’s final resting spot – next to the rubber tree plant and JediYeled’s orange tree.  JediYeled started to dig a hole in the shape of a fish and even let DovLev dig part as well since she did not get to bury her fish last year.

We then gently shook…I mean placed Rexi into the earth and JediYeled covered him up.  Then we stood together being grateful that JediYeled had such a wonderful fish for this past year.  JediYeled then looked up to me and said, “Ima, we have to say kaddish.”

What do you say? Yes, of course. So, together we said kaddish, after all, we are grateful that God created such wonderful creatures to fill our world.  And I am grateful I have two children who care so much about the world and all those who live in it.

Obla Di; Obla Da; Life Goes On….

We are in the middle of the northern Arizona desert when DovLev discovers that she has left her ipod at home! Right as we were leaving, she took everything out of her bag, rearranged it, and then put everything back. But we have discovered that both her camera and ipod are not in the bag.

DovLev: “Why is it that the one time that we don’t turn around because we forgot something, we forgot something and it’s my stuff!!!”

Yep, we made it out of the house and out of the neighborhood without actually turning around. And now, in the middle of the desert, DovLev is sitting on the side of the road VERY upset that she does not have her ipod.

The lesson which fortunately we followed: Make sure to always load up every other ipod with children’s mp3 music. So now, while she may have to use the Grandpa ipod, at least she has her music! And as we are back in the car heading north once again, she sings out: obla-di, obla-da, life goes on, bra, la, la, la, la life goes on! Whew!

How the Others Will Bless or Curse

(D’var Torah written by me for CCAR Webinar on Task Force on Intermarriage)

One of most common questions I get from visitors to Temple Beth Sholom is: where’s the front door?  TBS’ design is such that the front door is on the main street side, but the parking lot leads you to the back of the building.  And while we have signs pointing visitors where to go, it is still a challenge to figure out how to get in to the building.  Yet, once inside, especially in our sanctuary, guests remark how beautiful it is, how good it is to be in a space that feels so comfortable.

Mah tovu o’halecha Ya’akov, mish’k’notecha Yisrael. How good are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel.

Each of us can speak about how good our communities are and how beautiful our places of worship inspire prayer and moments of peace.  Yet, how difficult are they to navigate when trying to find the entry point?  How foreign do they look to the new comer and how does one navigate their way into the community?

Each person who enters the community comes in with certain expectations and a history of what they experienced in the past.  For some, it was the experience of the synagogue of their youth.  In that place, there were certain customs and expectations as to how to act, where to go and what to do.  For others, their point of reference for a religious community comes from outside Judaism yet they may enter with a Jewish partner who is either already comfortable in the space or is navigating it for the first time.  And there are those who enter a Jewish community completely alone but are just curious.  How will each individual react and speak of the community they experience for the first time? Will they bless or will they curse?

Balaam was hired to curse the Israelites by Balak, King of Moab, who feared that they would overtake his land.  Yet, Balaam was only able to speak words of blessing over the people.

Rav Yohanan offers us a midrash: “What did he (Balaam) see? He saw that the openings of the Israelites’ tents were not directly oriented toward one another. He then said: ‘These are worthy of having God’s presence (Shekhinah) rest upon them.’”

But why were the openings of the tents not directly oriented toward one another and why would this be worthy of blessing?  Rav Yohanan explains that the Mishnah states: “Within a communal courtyard, a person may not open a door directly facing another door, nor a window directly facing another window.”

Yet it is still a communal courtyard and the tents are all gathered together in one place.

Today, as we engage in our conversation regarding the presentation of the Task Force on Intermarriage at the CCAR convention, we take away two reflections.

First, is the perception of the community from on high.  Balaam stood high on the hill and looking down at the tents, he saw them gathered together as one large camp.  It was strong and it presented a sense of order.

Second, when entering the camp directly, while the tents are gathered together, they are still separate in that no one can see into another person’s dwelling place from their own.  There is still a sense of personal space and autonomy.

To those who enter our communities today, they hope to find a strong, unified community.  One, that when standing together is consistent in principle.  Yet, when one enters our communities, they do not want to lose the self.  One wants to know that they are still able to hold various opinions and thoughts and not just be a part of the collective where everyone agrees blindly.  There is hope for open dialogue and discussion and even disagreement.

We rabbis of the CCAR represent over 900 congregations. We are all a part of the Reform movement, hence the collective.  Yet, each of us is an individual thinker and leader in our communities.  Each of us holds our own opinions to personal practice on and off the pulpit.

Our congregants enter the community looking for stability and a place where they can also express their individual beliefs and opinions.  They look to the community for support and blessings.  And in return, we pray that they too bless us.

Mah tovu o’halecha Ya’akov, mish’k’notecha Yisrael – these were the words spoken by one looking in to the community.  These were blessings offered by someone experiencing the community for the first time.  These were words given when only looking from the outside.  What might Balaam’s blessings have been had he entered in to the heart of the community and experienced the vibrant life within?  What are the blessings we hope others will speak of us when they experience our communities from not only the outside but also when they enter our doors?

Allow each of us to create a strong unified community yet allow us also to always promote individual thought and practice.  Then will we be able to appreciate, how beautiful are our tents O Jacob, our dwelling places O Israel.

Great Life Lessons Learned From Noah!

A friend sent this and it’s just so perfect for me today.  Ahh, life lessons.

That Woodpecker Might Have to Go!

Everything I need to know about life, I learned from Noah’s Ark…

  • One: Don’t miss the boat.
  • Two: Remember that we are all in the same boat.
  • Three: Plan ahead. It wasn’t raining when Noah built the Ark.
  • Four: Stay fit. When you’re 600 years old, someone may ask you to do something really big.
  • Five: Don’t listen to critics; just get on with the job that needs to be done.
  • Six: Build your future on high ground.
  • Seven: For safety’s sake, travel in pairs.
  • Eight: Speed isn’t always an advantage. The snails were on board with the cheetahs.
  • Nine: When you’re stressed, float a while.
  • Ten: Remember, the Ark was built by amateurs; the Titanic by professionals.
  • Eleven: No matter the storm, when you are with God, there’s always a rainbow waiting.

~Author Unknown