Friday, February 24, 2012

An Unorthodox Shiva Minyan

The important thing is not how many separate injunctions are obeyed but how and in what spirit we obey them. -Baal Shem Tov

The purpose of the shiva minyan is to comfort the mourner.

Last week I was called upon to facilitate a shiva minyan for a woman whose brother had died in another city. Now that the mourner was back home, she wanted to complete her seven days of mourning with her own local community.

People poured in during the day, but as the seven o’clock evening hour approached only a few people remained. So we waited for the obligatory quorum of ten. When seven-thirty arrived, so did the tenth person.

I assessed the situation: two Jews, two Hindus, two Baptists, two Evangelical Christians, one Catholic -- and me, the rabbi.

Shiva is the most therapeutic of Jewish mourning rituals. It honors the journey of the bereaved by providing friends, family, and co-workers a proscribed setting in which to express their sympathies and condolences.

"'Shiva' means seven, the holy number of the days of creation and the number of days Jews withdraw from daily life to mourn a beloved,” I explained.

"Has anyone been to Jerusalem?" I asked, not knowing what the response would be.

"Oh, yes," came the feedback. "Several times," echoed the African-American couple sitting directly across from me.

"As you might remember, there are seven open gates in the Old City. In ancient times, there were eleven gates, and the temple in the ancient city of Jerusalem had a separate path set aside for the mourners. As the mourners came through this selected gate, they came face-to-face with other members of the community, and the people expressed the recognition of their loss by reciting this Hebrew verse."

HaMakom y’nachem etkhem b’tokh sh’ar aveilei Tzion v’ Yrushalayim.

I had them repeat the words after me and focus on their friend who stood with a torn black ribbon on her jacket above her heart, indicating externally her internal private grief.

We formed a circle around the mourner and recited the verse in unison.

May God comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

Suddenly, we were all on the same page of the heart. We have all traveled the same path of loss and bereavement. Cultural language is not the barrier. Diverse faith traditions do not separate us from the realities of life and death. This unorthodox shiva minyan paved the way towards comforting the mourner.

Let us all say "Amen."

Friday, February 17, 2012

There is No Comparison

The jealousy between Cain and Abel began with the brothers comparing one to the other.

When we are jealous of someone else, we begin to lose faith in our own unique soul.

God made you as a “one of a kind” special delivery package.

Accept your beauty and your divine constellation. There is no comparison more sacred.

Friday, February 10, 2012

And God says, "Where are you?"

Beginning next month, I will teaching a new class at Adas Israel here in Washington, D.C., called "Akeya: Soulful Jewish Education."

Ayeka is the first question in the Torah: In the Garden of Eden, when God asks Adam, “Where are you?” -- Adam is hiding. This is an eternal paradigm: We all hide, at times, in different ways.

The goal of this new approach is to create a venue in which we can stop hiding in order to explore our personal relationship with God, and to see how this relationship can impact our lives. It is possible to imbue our relationships, our work, and our entire lives with a sense of living in the image of God.
I hope you will join me as we explore what traditional Jewish texts and our own personal experience can teach us about our relationship with God and how we can use this relationship to enhance our lives and to bring out the best in ourselves and in all our personal relationships.

Wednesday, March 14 - Wednesday, April 4
7:15 - 8:30 p.m.
Adas Israel (2850 Quebec St NW, Washington, D.C. 20008)

Click here to register. All are welcome! Please contact me with any questions.

Friday, February 3, 2012

My Big Black Hat Family Wedding

In the past six months, I have attended three “black hat” weddings for my two grandnieces and one grandnephew. My sister’s nuclear family is "black hat."

The expression “black hat” denotes Jews who are extremely observant in their religious practices. They wear black fedora hats on special occasions, including the weekly holiday of Shabbat. The men dress this way to show respect to their past and uniformity in their community.

As I stood amidst the sea of black hats and dresses, I asked myself yet again, “Why all the black on such joyous occasions?”

I learned that the medieval church and state demanded that Jews wear black at all times. At that time, European countries generally decreed so-called “sumptuary” laws (the Latin word sumere refers to spending or consuming). These laws required each social class in the feudal system to wear clothes appropriate to its rank. By law, Jews had to wear black clothes so they could be immediately identified.

Black clothes are also known to Jews as an expression of divrei yirat shamayim, “fearing heaven.” Black is worn so as to avoid frivolity. Black is a statement of values.

As I surveyed the invited guests, I realized that though everyone looks similar, they are as unique as you and I. In Jewish tradition, what makes an individual is not clothing but character.

My family is part of a community of people that all dress the same. You are judged not by what you wear but by how you treat people.

I wore my black dress and black shoes in deference to their tradition. I didn’t stand out. I hope my character was my defining essence.