The Threshold to Freedom

The Kulanu 4th graders were competing in a Zoom scavenger hunt, and I had asked them to find something in their house that symbolizes what it means to be Jewish. One of the learners was empty handed. “I can’t bring it to the screen,” he said. When I asked him to explain, he said that it was attached to the kitchen door.

Mezuzah on a kitchen door.

A mezuzah! I was enthusiastic about his choice. In Deuteronomy 6:9, we read that we must write the remembrance of God’s law on the doorpost of our house and on our gates.

During this Passover, our second pandemic year of celebration in strangely isolated ways, Zoom seders and brisket for one, I have been thinking a great deal about doorways.

When we enter or exit a Jewish space with a mezuzah on the door, we are meant to touch or kiss or look at it, pausing to reflect on God’s covenant with us.

The mezuzah is also a continuous reminder of Passover and the experience of enslavement. How so?

On the night before our exodus, we were told to paint our doorposts with the blood of a lamb to save us from the Angel of Death who would mysteriously kill all the first born of Egypt but pass over the Israelite homes. Moses and Aaron had been told by God an important piece of the puzzle, but the people did not yet know. Within hours, we’d be girding our loins, wearing our sandals and eating that lamb hurriedly as we got out of Egypt, leaving slavery behind that very night. The sign on our doorposts would save us from death, and we thought that was enough. We could not even dream of freedom until we were told to run out the door toward it.

It was a liminal moment: we were no longer slaves as we were taking matters into our own hands, but we were not yet free.

One year later in the Torah, (in the maftir aliya) we were told to honor that liminal moment by sacrificing a paschal lamb and celebrating a festival every year on the anniversary.

Of course, today we no longer make animal sacrifices but we still celebrate that very festival called Passover. At this time of year, each time I pass through a doorway with a mezuzah, I think about the moment when my ancestors walked out of their homes in Egypt and out into the frightening unknown of something called freedom. We know from reading about their grumbling, ungrateful, contentious behavior in the desert that it was a very difficult transition. Many of them wanted to turn around and go back to Egypt. As terrible as Egyptian enslavement was, it was known.

And here we are, at the end of March 2021, more than one year after the pandemic began, once again at a transition point. Many of us have been vaccinated against COVID-19. Unlike so many of our family, friends, and neighbors, we have been saved from the Angel of Death. With care, we are told that we can begin the process of leaving our quarantine and isolation.

We know very well what has been experienced in the past year, but we have no idea about what lies ahead. Like our enslaved ancestors in Egypt, we know what we are leaving behind but have no idea what lies ahead. Many of us are having trouble passing through the threshold toward freedom. Like those unknowing, hurried slave ancestors of ours, we might have moments when we want to return to the safe haven of living separate and alone.

Judaism, however, is meant to be lived in community: in minyans of ten and many more than ten, at shared meals in our synagogue simcha room and around crowded dining room tables, in classrooms for children and for adults, in horas danced with joy, in Jewish camps and on trips to Israel. It is toward the sacred goal of kehillah, community, that we will keep intending. As much as we don’t know about the world beyond sheltering at home, we will cross this threshold. And as we are passing through our doorways, let us meditate on our mezuzot. Let’s talk about our relationship with God, our gratitude for our lives, and our dedication to participate in an all-inclusive kind of freedom as we sit in our houses and walk on the way, as we lie down and rise up… and we shall write our post Covid stories on the doorposts of our house and on our gates.

Drawing near in the second year

“On the first day of the first month in the second year….” (Exodus 40:17)

Millenia ago, we are told, Moses erected the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, on the first day of the month Nisan, one year out of Egypt. This portable sanctuary would replace Mount Sinai as the location at which which the Israelites would draw close to God.

On the same day on the Jewish calendar, earlier this week, we opened the doors to our sanctuary after having closed them one year ago in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. One by one, over a two-hour period of time in the afternoon, our inheritors of the Israelites’ legacy entered the synagogue to draw close in prayer before the open ark.

When Moses completed the Tabernacle’s construction, the cloud of God‘s presence filled the tent; so thick was it that no one could enter. True, our building has been closed to unfettered entrance for a year now, but our community has felt the presence of the Divine at its center. We have traveled this past year‘s journey with a shared sense of connection, care and trust.

As individuals emerged from the warm building into the chilly afternoon air on Sunday afternoon, several inquired from behind their masks when we would be resuming our in-person, indoor services. My initial response was to remind the inquirers that we are blessed to have a relatively full calendar of lifecycle events. Between now and the middle of May, we have families celebrating lifecycle events in the sanctuary almost every Shabbat, albeit with limited attendance, masking and physical distancing.

I followed this response, however, with a question. What does “returning” look like? We are accustomed to Shabbat mornings that are uplifting, inspiring and intimate. Hypothetically, if we were to resume services in May with 50 masked people dispersed in a space that holds 300, would we achieve any of the goals we aspire to in our congregational services? Moreover, are we prepared to have services that are accessible only to the vaccinated, thereby excluding a large segment of our community?

The varied responses of the people who attended our Sunday afternoon “open house” program were also telling. Some felt filled up simply by having a few quiet moments in the sanctuary. Others felt deeply saddened by the sense of lost time, friends and community that our largely empty sanctuary represents. Still others came simply to express gratitude for the ways in which the Divine presence has extended beyond the walls of the building and permeated the walls of our Zoom rooms.

In the days and weeks ahead, we will continue to monitor the pulse of our community, weighing our desire to be together against the behavior we can model to move our community closer to full vaccination. In the absence of a compelling need to change course, we will continue to operate deliberately, striving to take advantage of every opportunity to safely and meaningfully bring people together.

As we turn to the book of Vayikra (Leviticus) this week, we are reminded that God calls to us to “draw near” in sacrifice. The Hebrew word for sacrificial offering, korban, literally means “near” or “close” at its root. Some would say that this past year of the pandemic has brought our community closer together than ever before. Drawing closer in the year ahead, however, may require even greater sacrifice: greater patience; greater understanding; greater appreciation for the many ways we can serve God, community and humanity.

We have already dabbled in the world of “hybrid” programming, where the experience for some is in person and for others is virtual. There is no doubt that our next phase of programming will involve an increase in our hybrid offerings. So long as we can gather in person while there are some who cannot access vaccination or who remain at risk, we will in essence need to create two simultaneous experiences. This will demand even greater creativity and commitment, individually and communally, than we have ever shown before. And in light of all I have seen over these past months, I have no doubt that we are up to the task.

We have proven that our tabernacle transcends—and must continue to transcend— the fixed and the portable, the physical and the virtual, accessible to all who seek to draw near.

Rabbi Craig Scheff

2020 Hindsight

Dear OJC Family, 

One year ago this coming Shabbat, we closed the doors of our synagogue building due to what we thought was an extreme abundance of caution. We had the sense that we would be back together again in a few months. Some of you predicted this “long haul,” but your clergy did not. We were optimistic and naïve.

The doors of our beloved building are still mostly closed. Yet our community has never been more resilient, ambitious, and connected.  Dedication, congregational support, and deep resolve have brought us here. 

We invite you to mark this anniversary by coming to the OJC on Sunday, March 14, between the hours of 3:00 and 5:00 to greet your rabbis and our president, Michael Pucci, outside, and to mark the passage of time through ritual. We invite you to enter the sanctuary if you so choose, one pod at a time, to spend a short time before the ark to reconnect to the space we have all missed.

Perhaps it feels strange to consider marking such a moment in time. Your rabbis do not want to let this anniversary slip away. This year has been marked by many losses and deep sorrow: illness, death, isolation, unemployment, children’s struggles, and fear. Yet this year has also been filled with loving kindness, optimism, connection, faith, learning, and activism.

At the OJC, we have learned that Jewish tradition and peoplehood can overcome any adversity we face. We took stock, reimagined, and provided the essentials: prayer experience, learning for adults and children, justice work, and social programming.  Your rabbis agree that we are a stronger community than we were a year ago.

We invite you to think about a moment of the past year with 2020 Hindsight, to remember and feel proud of an OJC moment. Please capture that moment in one or two sentences and send your memory to office@theojc.org with the Subject: 2020 Hindsight. We will gather all of our memories into an online Memory Book, an artifact of this challenging year.

With much gratitude to our Medical Task Force, we commit to continuing our Covid-19 safety protocols of distancing and mask-wearing, in an effort to care for the safety of all our community members.

We commit and call upon each other to reach out in support of those whose struggles are seen and unseen. We are not alone. As a wise congregant said to us: We have learned to live alone; now we must learn how to live together once again.

We are proof of the essential nature of community. May we continue our path forward as a sacred community anchored in Torah, Avodah (prayer) and Gemilut Hasadim (acts of loving kindness).

With gratitude, 

Rabbi Craig Scheff, Rabbi Ami Hersh, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

#JDAIM2021 A Year of Lessons in One Month

Carmel Louis flipped himself from his back to his stomach three times in a row one morning. We fawning adults applauded wildly, so proud of his new feat. What an accomplishment, what prowess, what a genius at 4 1/2 months! Yes, we celebrated his ability. Not one of us questioned why he was not getting up onto all fours to crawl once he was on his stomach. No, we were proud and content with what he accomplished.

Exactly here lies the key takeaway lesson of this year’s Jewish Disabilities Awareness and Inclusion Month. #JDAIM2021 Each Wednesday night through the month of February, our guest teachers shared the same message: Celebrate the abilities of people instead of judging, pitying or harming them for their differences.
Robert Anthony’s right leg was amputated below the knee when he was 10 months old, but this fact is not what any of us privileged to hear him speak will remember about him. When we think about Robert, we will remember that he is a world ranked athlete, a motivational speaker, and the founder of Limb Possible, a nonprofit organization that supports people who have lost one or more limbs. I will remember the way he lit up with pride when he talked about his two children. Robert Anthony told his story through the prism of learning from every experience. Robert is living proof that with a positive mental attitude, anything is possible.

Pamela Rae Schuller lives with Tourette’s Syndrome, but that is not what we will remember about her. We’ll continue to marvel at the way Pamela uses comedy and storytelling to change people’s minds about what inclusion really means. Pamela taught us that inclusion leads to creativity, that understanding disabilities is not about what people cannot do because someone with special needs is present, but rather what people can do because of the presence of someone with different abilities.

Staff of The Arc Rockland, including our own Esther Schulman, spoke about the challenges and rewards of inclusion in the community. Karen and Alan, two residents of Arc homes, reminded us all that every community is made up of lots of different kinds of people. Their presence as our teachers speaks volumes to us as we dedicate ourselves to fight stigma and advance opportunities for and with people with disabilities.

This coming week, #JDAIM2021 will conclude with a Zoom visit from Steve Possell, a DJ on the radio station WRCR, who is blind. On Wednesday night, February 24 at 7:30, Steve will share his stories and the challenges he has overcome. I am confident that what we will remember about Steve is not that he is blind, but that he is a capable and interesting man who lives his passion.

One month out of every year spent raising awareness, inclusion, and advocacy about people who have special needs is meaningful only when it spurs us to continue the learning and action all year long.
Robert Anthony told us, “I want people to see me as someone who inspires them to do better and be better despite their circumstances.” Robert, Pamela, Karen and Alan, and Steve are teachers for all of us, carrying their message by focusing on what they can do rather than on what they cannot do.
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

A kingdom of priests

Do I turn to God more often from a place of distress, or from a place of contentment?

For three weeks in January, Lindsay Goldman, a third-year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary and a long-time member of our synagogue community, challenged her students (that includes me!) to consider their relationships with God. In her third session, she posed the question above. Nearly all the participants, not so surprisingly, responded that they turn to God most often when they find themselves in need.

These past months have presented so many painful moments, and I can certainly understand why people would be moved to prayer for Divine intervention, healing and equanimity. Our traditional liturgy reassures us that “God is near to all who call, to all who call upon God in truth” (Psalm 145). In those moments of distress, we are given words to use when “Help me, God” doesn’t come so easily: “From the narrowest places I have called out to You; answer me in your Divine expansiveness” (Psalm 118). And the tradition reassures us of God’s presence: “God is near to those who have a broken heart, and saves those who have a crushed spirit” (Psalm 34).

As we call to God from our pain, we are told that God is near us, embracing us in our pain. Yet, while we may be assured that God hears our prayers, God’s reply is more difficult to discern. Does God intervene to relieve us of our suffering? Does God bind our wounds? Or is God’s answer to be found in our knowing that we are heard, that we are not alone, that our “healing” at some level will emerge from the relationship we share with God? 

I have revisited my response to Lindsay’s question numerous times in the last days. And on a snowy day in February, I return to my answer again. Safe and warm, with a stocked refrigerator and a phone that can connect me to the other side of the globe, with family and friends who offer voices of support and comfort, I turn to God in gratitude. 

Personally, I rarely call out to God from a place of distress. When I am in need of strength or comfort, I turn first to the other people in my life—my family, my friends, my community. They are my strength, my comfort, my healers. Their presence lifts me, and their love is the source of my resilience. I don’t call out to God in need, perhaps because I recognize that God has given me—in the form of the people in my life—everything I need to endure, find meaning, heal and persevere. 

Perhaps I choose to put my faith in others in my times of need because my personal experience has been one of others putting their faith in me. In my role of rabbi, I have been charged with the responsibility, and have been granted the privilege, to step into many of those moments when others find themselves in pain. Although even friends and family are left wondering what they can do, I am empowered by the ritual of our tradition, the wisdom of our sages and the trust of a community to be among the primary responders to people’s crises. My experience has reinforced my belief that, in the midst of hardship, people must step into the breach to bring relief. God’s listening ear brings one measure of comfort, but the work of our hands will deliver God’s love. Especially for those who feel alone in the world, it is incumbent upon each of us to offer those hands in care and kindness.

In this week’s parsha, Yitro, God expresses the hope that we will be to God “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). The Hebrew word for “priest” is kohein, and is more accurately translated as “minister.” Like that English word, the Hebrew word carries the connotation of service (as in “to minister to the needs of others”). God, then, expects us to be a community of individuals who minister to each other’s needs. In doing so, we become holy. In my mind, being holy means that we carry with us God’s presence. It is this holiness I choose to make note of in my world, day in and day out, in the simplest of kindnesses and the most common of beauties.

It is this practice of gratitude—acknowledging God in moments of peace and thanking God when I recognize blessings—that has conditioned me to see the presence of God through the goodness of others.

In the Talmud, we are taught: “And I shall pray to you God at a time of favor. When is it a time of favor? When the community prays” (Berachot 7b).

I find my comfort, contentment and calm in community. I find my energy, uplift and inspiration in community. I thank God for you all every day, whether we connect personally, virtually or at the level of the soul. From a place of love, appreciation and joy.

Rabbi Craig Scheff

Getting fully dressed

OJC’s Rabbis are happy to offer this space for the words of our JTS Resnick Intern, Jesse Nagelberg

I lay my clothes on my bed – jeans and shirt with a collar.

I put in my contact lenses, brush my teeth, shave, and shower.

I put on cologne – yes, every day – and then my rings, my watch, and my kippah.

I finish getting dressed, including matching socks and shoes.

I am ready to begin the day.

This is my early morning routine and it has not changed – not even during the ten months since COVID-19 upended our lives and most of my days have been spent in my apartment. My routine may seem excessive since, typically, no one is going to see the details of my outfit, let alone smell whether I used cologne! But I want to feel prepared to conquer whatever the day will bring, just like I did when I left the house every day. Whether my day has involved working at OJC or Camp Ramah, studying, teaching, or chatting with friends; whatever the day has had in store, for me, being fully dressed for these daily activities has helped me to feel wide-eyed and alert.

The concept of Hiddur Mitzvah is that we can amplify our mitzvot by beautifying them. Shabbat Kiddush can be more special when using a cup made of metal or carefully constructed out of glass. Lighting Chanukah candles takes on more meaning when using a family heirloom or a Chanukiah we have a personal connection to. We can turn the mundane into a mitzvah when we dress it up a bit – literally and figuratively. We can not only show up; we can show up dressed nicely, organized and attentive. In that vein, we can be ready to notice the smallest details that enhance and beautify our lives.

If the last months have taught me anything, it is that there are small gems of learning to be found everywhere. We just have to open our eyes, our ears and our hearts and embrace them. 

In his book The Insecurity of Freedom: Essays on Human Existence, Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “What we need more than anything else is not textbooks but textpeople. It is the personality of the teacher which is the text that the pupils read; the text that they will never forget.” 

Picking my head up out of my many rabbinical school books and papers has enabled me to notice many “textpeople” in recent weeks:

  • During a Prayer through Music and Movement elective with OJC’s 6th and 7th graders, we have swapped songs that feel prayerful to us. Watching the students discover and introduce each other to music from different genres and decades has infused my life with new music and new ways to connect to the words of the siddur.
  • After using an app on my phone for an extended period of time, I received a notification advising me, “It seems like you’ve been scrolling for a long time. Now is a good time to get away from the screen for a few minutes to breathe and relax.” It is amazing that the automatic intelligence function on this app actually prompted me to take a much-needed pause.
  • The 8 year old child of a classmate unmuted his mom’s computer during a class about Moses’ encounter at the Burning Bush and engaged the professor in a discussion about Moses’ anxieties and intentions. I marvelled at the wisdom of this precocious child and how seriously my professor took his question and made it a part of the day’s learning.
  • One of my family’s dogs, Callie, is on hyper-alert all day for stray geese, Amazon deliveries, and Zoom events to join. She is almost always “on”; but when she takes a break, she curls up on the couch and instinctively lays her head on the nearest pillow, literally sleeping like a person. Callie reminds me that at the end of the day, or at the end of a busy or stressful time, it is important to find a soft place to rest your head.

As we move ahead in 2021, children are back in school, either in person or virtually, after a well-deserved break from the screens and Zooms that have become the focal point of their day. Perhaps it is time for all of us to go back to “school” and be more alert to the teachings that surround us. We can show up, even from home, by getting dressed up. We can return to learning from all of the teachers in our lives — our friends and neighbors, our children and pets and even, occasionally, AI technology. 

So what did you put on this morning, and how is it helping you recognize the gems to learn from in your life?

Jesse Nagelberg, OJC-JTS Resnick Intern

Before We Bury 2020…

I know that you are seeing them too: pictures on your Instagram feed, texts sent by friends, photographs attached to emails. Healthcare workers we know are receiving their first vaccination dose against COVID-19.  I celebrate each picture, text and phone call because the rolling out of the vaccines offers concrete proof that 2021 will be different.

No picture gave me as much optimism as this one of Dr. Debbie Goodman Scheff. Matthew and Debbie‘s wedding was the last time that I was in a large gathering, in a space of celebration, feeling complete joy. I think back to the hora of that Sunday at the beginning of March, and I cannot believe how 2020 unrolled
And now we are just beginning a brand-new year. We have all been more than ready to say goodbye to a year that was filled with illness, tragedy, violence, and isolation.

But before I leave 2020 in the trash heap of nightmares and unwanted daymares, I would like to offer some perspective on this year.
If we think back and sort through the long, difficult months, we can pull out from those days moments that in retrospect might have been a blessing, experiences that were our teacher, and joys that we should not forget despite the sorrow.
Our sacred community gathered every evening and Shabbat for prayer, learning and comfort. Supportive conversations helped isolated friends through difficult days. Walks in nature alerted us to God’s grandeur all around us. All of these were blessings and I know that you can think of many more.
People lost their beloved family members and friends during this pandemic and lost so much of our tradition, of the very ritual that helps us grieve. Yet we figured out how to receive some semblance of comfort in backyards, via Facetime and on zoom. Families felt the ambivalent loss of missed graduations, holiday celebrations, and gatherings for milestones. Our community could not gather in full force for the pinnacle of our year, to hear the shofar blown in our beautiful sanctuary on Rosh Hashana, and instead listened to the T’kiah in our parking lot. As difficult as these moments were, they taught us about what is truly essential. Being there does not actually require being there. We can virtually be there too.
Babies were born, couples were married, and 13 year-olds became Jewish adults in 2020. Nothing happened as expected, but real joy was experienced. Perhaps even a sweeter joy was felt because we were in the midst of a dangerous moment.

Weddings had fewer participating but no diminishment in the joy.
Zoom bat mitzvah had all the joy that we could muster!

Judaism has always taught that life goes on even in the midst of pain. This pandemic helped me incorporate that teaching into my very soul.
So yes, bring on those vaccinations! Let’s move beyond the stay-at-home mandates of 2020, finally take our masks off and greet each other once again face-to-face. When we move into this new year, however, let us not leave behind all of the important lessons of this difficult year… dare I say it? Let’s remember to have 2020 hindsight. The lessons are there for us if we keep our minds and hearts open.
This past zooming Shabbat, Rabbi Scheff happened to mention that there were 55 families gathered together in our webinar service. We could not see or hear each other, but he encouraged us to feel the power of knowing that we had gathered for Shabbat worship and learning. After Shabbat, one congregant reflected on that idea and wrote to us: “I have been remembering back to my first trip to Israel when Rabbi Scheff explained how the years of wandering in the desert strengthened the Israelites’ feeling as a community. I was thinking that this pandemic has been our desert: an experience that has strengthened our feelings of community and the realization that it is not the building that builds us, but we as a community are the builders.

Let us enter 2021 together as builders. Wishing everyone a happy and safe new year, and may a vaccination be in your future very soon!
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

Partnering into 2021 and beyond

Way back at the end of August, I wrote in this blog:

“The Jewish New Year’s arrival, this year in particular, may help us look back with 20/20 hindsight, and may help us envision the final third of 2020 with a greater sense of gratitude, purpose and optimism.”

Now, as we have endured the summer and fall, ridden out their lows and highs, and taken note of their dark clouds and silver linings, we stand ready to greet the secular new year of 2021. Winter has indeed arrived, yet we are bolstered by the new perspectives on life we have gained, the relationships we have fostered, and the hopes for an effective vaccine that will allow us to come together physically to a greater degree in the year ahead. But of all the lessons taught and learned during these ten unforgettable months of 2020, there is one that I was particularly glad to have internalized personally and professionally almost twenty years ago. Stated most simply by our tradition: Tovim hashnayim min ha-echad, “Two is better than one” (Ecclesiastes 4:9).

For the past two decades, I have advocated that a hierarchical model of religious leadership does not serve the best interests of religious communities or the clergy who serve them. Long before our communities were facing a pandemic, our synagogue community amended its constitution to delete the language of “senior” rabbi, “assistant” or “associate” rabbi, and “cantor.” Instead, the organization consciously chose the broader language of “clergy” with the understanding that the success of our community was dependent upon the ability of our religious leaders and professionals to establish and deepen personal relationships, regardless of their titles. 

Moreover, the ability of individual clergy to play to their strengths and to use their diverse talents and skills to cultivate connections would ultimately accrue, we believed, to the benefit of the organization and the entire professional staff. Finally, and perhaps most importantly for the individual professionals and our organizations, we acknowledged that it is very difficult, perhaps even impossible, for leaders to be true partners when one is expected to answer to or be judged by the other. I am proud that our JTS Resnick Interns, through our Debbie Steiner Mentorship Program, have moved into the Jewish world building partnerships and leading vibrant and growing communities with this model in mind.

This pandemic has reinforced my belief that the partnership model provides professionals the opportunity to shoulder equally the burdens, to process the challenges and opportunities, and to share the personal and professional stresses. Partnership maximizes the potential of each professional to acquire and share skills, to broaden vision and reach, and to establish the relationships that will connect more people to each other, the institution and its mission. Finally, partnership models behavior for professional and lay people alike. The stronger the partnership, the more we generate in each other a sense of empowerment, ownership, and investment in a shared vision. The success of one is the success of all.

As we find ourselves in the midst of a time when communities cannot operate by bringing people into regular and consistent physical proximity, it is all the more important that our organizations have professionals who can connect people by facilitating intimate gatherings and cultivating meaningful connection. Some of us have acknowledged (and the forward thinking leaders knew this prior to the pandemic) that certain modes by which we have been operating must become a part of our business-as-usual way of doing things. For example, aging populations who can be served by virtual connection must be given the opportunity to connect from their homes to spiritual, educational and social opportunities as Jewish law permits. Our communities and leaders require partners to share the professional burden of the work and to share the personal burden of the stress that these new modes of operating generate.

In hindsight, we may look back on 2020 as the year that helped us envision the future of our community more clearly. Perhaps 2021 will be the year in which the steps we must take to realize our finest aspirations come into sharp focus!

Wishing us all a happy, healthy and safe 2021 in which we feel connected, cared for, and empowered to partner with those in need,

Rabbi Craig Scheff

A Thanksgiving Story

Two candles burn side by side in my dining room as I prepare for another pandemic Shabbat. First is a tall seven-day shiva candle, blackened around the top after burning for six days. Jon is coming to the conclusion of shiva for his mother, Ruth Finkelstein Ignatoff, z”l. The second was lit last night for the 11th of Kislev, a yahrzeit candle for my mother, Frances Weisberg Mack, z”l, who died just before Thanksgiving twenty-four years ago. Every year at the end of November from now on, we will remember two mothers whose most sacred holiday was Thanksgiving.

When I realized that today is Black Friday, an intensive retail engrossment that I have never fully understood, I said jokingly to a friend, “Black Friday has a brand-new meaning for me this year.” He agreed and added, “I guess Thanksgiving ever after is ruined for you.”
That could be one way of looking at it. But that is not the way I look at it.
It is true that Thanksgiving is now attached to two significant deaths. But Thanksgiving is also the holiday when our first born, Noah, arrived in the world. And Thanksgiving is also the holiday when Ben and Lindsay were engaged to be married last year.

There is enormous power in the stories that we tell ourselves, in the way that we tell our stories and the perspective we take as narrators. We can shape our stories so that they are useful and comforting, or we can take on a viewpoint that creates a story with us as suffering protagonists at the center of depressing events beyond our control. So often we seem to forget that WE are the authors of our own stories. So this is how I will tell my family Thanksgiving story:

Thanksgiving has been sacred in Jonathan‘s family from a time long before he can remember. His Grandma Sadye’s large, extended family would gather in the Woonsocket, Rhode Island house for an entire weekend which included a Thanksgiving dinner for sixty family members in two seatings. Jon’s siblings and cousins share happy memories of candlepin bowling, Uncle Rick’s drooling St. Bernard, annual trips to Grandpa Noah‘s coat factory for new jackets, and Friday lunch at Howard Johnson’s.
Thanksgiving shifted and changed over the years, but it always remained Jon’s mother’s holiday. Elements of the invitation list and menu have stayed in place; and the weekend long celebration and treasured traditions continue with new participants and locations. My house filled up every year with my in-laws and my nieces and nephews; everyone magically finding someplace to put down a pillow. My sister-in-law Maggie and Jon’s brother Dave found a way to fit all the tables in their house and welcomed us in for a day of eating, board games and poker. And my mother-in-law always reigned over the day. Maggie has copious notes in Ruth’s handwriting to prove it!

If we held the perspective that those good old days will never return again, we would be missing the new experiences there to be enjoyed over the years. If we held the perspective that this season is now one of loss, we would negate the special joys that continue at Thanksgiving time.
Just two of us sat down to dinner last night with a 20-pound turkey and only one meat eater. But after zoom calls to express gratitude, we were perfectly content with our Thanksgiving experience. The main point is the gratitude, and that is the story Jon and I told each other as we shared a meal of plenty.
Last night after minyan, Rabbi Scheff shared a playlist of five Israeli songs about gratitude to enhance our Thanksgivings. My favorite, by the late, great Uzi Hitman, is called “Todah” (Thanks).
He sings:
Thanks for all that You’ve created, thanks for what You’ve given me. For our eyesight, a friend or two,
for what I have in the world.
For the song which flows,
and a forgiving heart
– because of all this – I exist.
Several congregants have mentioned to me that in the past couple of weeks, it feels like the clouds are starting to part and the sun will break through to shine again. I think, however, that we still have months to go in this pandemic. I am not expecting complete sunshine quite yet. But I am grateful that I have arms that can reach up to the sky and help push those clouds out of the way.
Because of all this, I exist.

Shabbat shalom, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

One tree

They wanted to tear down the tulip tree, our neighbors, last year. It throws a/ shadow over their vegetable patch, the only tree in our backyard. We said no./ Now they’ve hired someone to chainsaw an arm—the crux on our side of/ the fence—and my wife, in tousled hair and morning sweat, marches to stop the/ carnage, mid-limb. It reminds her of her childhood home, a shady place to hide./ She recites her litany of no, returns. Minutes later, the neighbors emerge. The/ worker points to our unblinded window. I want to say, it’s not me, slide out of/ view behind a wall of cupboards, ominous breakfast table, steam of tea, our two/ young daughters now alone. I want no trouble. Must I/ fight for my wife’s desire/ for yellow blooms when my neighbors’ tomatoes will stunt and blight in shade?/ Always the same story: two people, one tree, not enough land or light or love./ Like the baby brought to Solomon, someone must give. Dear neighbor, it’s not/ me. Bloom-shadowed, light-deprived, they/ lower the chainsaw again.

The poem, One Tree by Philip Metres, is about conflict at the local level. The struggle is neighbor against neighbor and the battlefield is the back yard. The fence that separates properties cannot keep out the tree’s shade cast from one lot into the next. The conflict, however, is not a two-sided affair. The narrator-husband is a bystander who is sympathetic to both claims. The worker is a combatant by proxy, a participant without an expressed conviction. The poem reminds us that while the sides to any confrontation might be seen from the outside as monolithic, divisions within the opponents might, and invariably do, exist. And unwitting players are bound to get caught in the conflict as well.

The rivalry between Jacob and Esau as described in this week’s parsha, Toledot (Genesis 25:19 – 28:9), begins in Rebecca’s pregnant belly. Their conflict is founded in their nature and fed by their nurture. Their methods and their goals couldn’t be more divergent. And their struggle is intensified by the fact that they are family. Neighbors may disengage or move. Siblings remain enmeshed by a shared history, a common bond of blood, and a character dynamic that replays (perhaps subconsciously if not overtly) at every encounter. While the men may grow like branches in opposite directions, they remain attached to the same tree.

In a 2010 interview with Krista Tippett on the podcast On Being, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth who passed away on November 7, discussed the dynamics of political and religious conflict. In addressing conflict between faiths, he offered the following: “We all come from a single source. Everything that lives has its genetic code written in the same alphabet. Unity creates diversity. So don’t think of one God, one truth, one way. Think of one God creating this extraordinary number of ways, the 6,800 languages that are actually spoken. Don’t think there’s only one language within which we can speak to God.”

How much more does this teaching apply to us as a human family? Our diversity–of ideologies, of political philosophies, of beliefs, of values, of behavioral patterns–can be traced back to the same singular source. When we ignore how interconnected we are, we “throw shade” across our fences, depriving one another of light and the accompanying growth, and we fail to see ourselves in the other. In recognizing our shared code, we can find common ground between siblings, neighbors and ideologies. In understanding how nature and nurture have shaped the many permutations of that code, we can begin to understand and appreciate the diversity and uniqueness of every human family member.

In the ongoing struggle for recognition, for love, for resources, for power, we might make the same mistake as the poem’s narrator. “It’s not me,” they wish their neighbor would know. But, of course, it is me. And it is you. The tree is ours; it is us, our history, our heritage and our responsibility. But it is not ours alone. It belongs as well to our siblings, cousins and neighbors. It belongs to our friends across the aisle and across the oceans. The tree is ours.

In memory of Ruth Ignatoff z”l, mother of Jonathan Drill and his four unique and loving siblings,

Rabbi Craig Scheff

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